South Australia’s (SA) proposal to take over responsibility for early childhood has created a timely debate ahead of today’s Council of Australian Governments (COAG) leaders retreat.
SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s proposal would create a continuum of schooling – from early childhood to year 12. The potential benefits include consolidating responsibility for the delivery of early childhood education across the Federation and improving access to early learning to more children.
The research is now clear that increasing participation in early childhood education amplifies students’ later educational outcomes. It was on this basis that David Gonski recommended a better alignment between the early childhood system with school education, which Premier Weatherill’s proposal seeks to deliver.
Currently, responsibilities for early childhood education and care are shared across the two tiers of Federal and State/Territory Government. This results in competing priorities, lack of clarity in relation to the purpose of programs and outcomes for children as well as confusion amongst families who don’t understand which government is responsible for ensuring that services are available when and where they are needed, at an affordable cost.
It is not surprising that state governments are starting to recognise the benefits of early childhood since they have the most to gain in terms of improving student outcomes in their own education systems. There are also savings to state health systems by improving children’s development as well as child protection and a range of other state functions.
What Premier Weatherill understands, perhaps more than other leaders at the table, is that early childhood education is also a major economic lever, not just a social welfare bucket. Improved early childhood development outcomes boost gross domestic product and productivity growth, both of which South Australia badly needs. Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) estimates that improving access to disadvantaged children alone would boost the national economy by $13.3 billion to 2050.
The Commonwealth’s Productivity Commission largely ignored the economic benefits of children’s development in its recent Inquiry in to Child Care and Early Childhood Learning. Instead it focused on the first round effects of investment – child care to improve women’s workforce participation. The Productivity Commission also did not solve the two tiered state/federal funding arrangements.
As a result, the design of the Government’s new Child Care Assistance Package does not go far enough in improving access to early learning for children. Yet overseas, the focus of the system is on education, with all children in the UK accessing two days of early learning from age three (and disadvantaged two year olds), regardless of their parents’ participation in work. Last week I returned home envious from New Zealand, where all children can access 20 hours of early learning each week.
Despite consistent growth in public investment in Australia, we still lag behind these comparative OECD countries. If Australia was meeting the OECD recommended investment benchmark of 1 per cent of GDP investment in early childhood education and care, we would be investing over $60 billion per year on early childhood education and care.
The Federal Government is responsible for the bulk of investment in early childhood education; $40 billion over the next four years. The challenge for South Australia’s proposal is that the most recent gains to improve access to quality early childhood education have in fact occurred under National Partnerships led by the Commonwealth, driven in part by its capacity to fund investment.
If State Governments were to take over early childhood education, as proposed, there would need to be agreement on a sustainable financing mechanism that allows for growth. There would also need to be targets to ensure that no child is left behind because of the State or Territory they live in.
The greatest difficulty is also reconciling the policy priorities for the system – improving educational outcomes while also integrating the Commonwealth’s focus on workforce participation. To create a more cohesive and mature early learning system, leaders will need to consolidate these competing priorities under one policy framework.
One advantage of the role of State Governments in improving access to early childhood education is their ability to control the planning and delivery of services, which the Commonwealth cannot do effectively. This has significant potential in helping to improve early childhood education participation rates, especially amongst three year olds, boosting Australia’s long-term prosperity.
So while there are challenges to reform – leaders should not shy away from a debate on early childhood education.
It may even be the start of a vision for delivering early childhood education in Australia, from which everyone stands to benefit.
This article was originally published on the Drum here.