Early Learning Matters Week is a vital opportunity to celebrate the importance of early learning and the work that early childhood educators do.
Universal access to high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) benefits all young children, but it particularly benefits those at risk of poor education achievement. More than 90% of brain development occurs in the first five years, high quality early education sets children up for lifelong learning and wellbeing. Young children learn best through play-based activities that are suited to their age. When children have inclusive, positive and rich early learning experiences, they are more likely to go on to become successful learners, with high levels of wellbeing. Early childhood education and care is an important way of providing learning experiences, especially for children experiencing disadvantage or vulnerability.
All children deserve access to a high-quality, play-based early education and care service where and when they need it. Universal access to high-quality, play-based early childhood education and care services deliver positive outcomes for children and families now and into the future. This access also provides greater opportunities to reach and support vulnerable children and families. In 2021, children who did not receive any ECEC were twice as likely to be developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains when starting school than children that received some ECEC (40.7% compared to 20.3%).
The goal of fully realising the benefits of early learning for all children in Australia has not yet been reached. Early Childhood Australia (ECA) advocates for an early childhood system for young children that delivers more accessible, affordable, inclusive, and stable early childhood services to ensure every young child is thriving and learning. We know that a strong universal platform of early childhood education and care supports all children now and in the future.
One in five (22%) Australian children start school developmentally vulnerable, which rises to two in five (42.3%) for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children according to the most recent Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) data. The data shows a ‘small but significant’ increase in the proportion of Australian children who are ‘developmentally vulnerable’. Worryingly, this ‘lost ground is most evident where there was existing developmental disadvantage’.
High-quality early learning makes a difference to children’s long-term outcomes, but research shows over a third of Australia’s children live in ‘childcare deserts’ (568,700 children aged 0 to 4 years, or 36.5%)—nine million Australians in total. ‘Childcare deserts’ are areas where there are more than three children for every early childhood education and care centre-based place. While they are most likely to occur in regional and remote areas, ‘childcare deserts’ are in every part of Australia.
The recent review of the government’s Child Care Package revealed the package had limited impact on improving the affordability of early childhood education and has ‘not been effective, to date, in reducing increases in childcare fees’. The report also finds many families are accessing high levels of unsubsidised hours in early education. Concerningly, the package has a disproportionate limiting impact for children and families experiencing disadvantage and vulnerability through reductions to the minimum hours of subsidised care (down from 24 hours a week to 12).
The report notes in its concluding remark: ‘the real challenge is in developing a clearer vision of the role of early childhood education and care in Australia, and working towards this.’
Early childhood education and care should be for every child, however, many children and families experience disproportionate exclusion from services. Inclusion support programs are struggling to keep pace with demand and targeted support for children and families is often fragmented and siloed. Funding and support to access tailored professional learning has not kept pace with the demands and complexities facing the current workforce.
With adequate resources and partnerships, early learning settings can provide a unique opportunity to provide welcoming places for all children and families, while supporting specialist approaches and targeted interventions. They can also be sites for deeply listening to the voices of children and those who care for them to deliver trauma-informed, culturally safe and inclusive approaches that support all to thrive. We need well-resourced systems and practices that put early learning in reach for all children and families.
The early childhood education and care sector is facing unprecedented workforce challenges and shortages. While the sector has projected growth, the profession is experiencing significant workforce shortages driven by declining enrolments in educator and teacher qualifications, high turnover and recruitment difficulties along with high vacancies. Some services are reconfiguring or reducing provisions to operate within staffing constraints. This is placing significant pressure on the workforce who are often working long hours in more challenging conditions, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The sector needs significant investment in the longer-term strategies set out in the Shaping Our Future strategy. There is also immediate investment required to improve the pay and conditions of the sector. We need a well-supported and professionally paid workforce that is thriving. Our children, families, and society rely on the benefits of early learning and a strong and stable workforce.
To make better progress, we need to prioritise:
- Access to Early Learning: A high-quality, play-based ECEC place for every child where and when they need it.
- Affordability of Early Learning: A simplified subsidy system that delivers affordable and predictable ECEC.
- Inclusion in Early Learning: Well resourced systems and practices that put ECEC services in reach for all children and families.
- Stability of Early Learning: A well supported and professionally paid workforce that are thriving in their work.
Early Learning Matters Week needs your participation this year. From 17–21 October 2022 host an event, get in touch with your local MP, invite them to your service and showcase the importance of early education in your community. There are resources to help plan your event on the Early Learning Matters website, along with a page to register your event.