I recently participated in the Early Years Summit, convened by Minister for Social Services Amanda Rishworth MP and Minister for Early Childhood Education and Care Anne Aly MP, to begin work on the national Early Years Strategy. This summit brought together 100 people—too many ‘big names’ to mention them all—as well as parents, educators, early childhood sector leaders, academics, commissioners and advocates.
In her opening speech, Minister Rishworth spoke to the importance of the first five years and the value of investing in this time to ensure better-adjusted children and better-supported families. She boldly claimed, ‘We want to be world leaders in the early years’ before outlining her vision for an Early Years Strategy that builds alignment and cross-portfolio collaboration—ending the silo approach to policy, fragmented programs, and duplication of effort.
“We are laying out this roadmap together, to guide policies and programs and to provide a vision of what Australia wants to achieve for children and their families in the early years”#EYS2023
— Amanda Rishworth MP (@AmandaRishworth) February 16, 2023
A key message from both Ministers was that they are ready and willing to make whatever changes might be needed to improve outcomes for young children. Participants were encouraged to be ‘creative, innovative and bold’ in their suggestions for improvement.
Minister Aly discussed the importance of high quality, affordable early childhood education and care (ECEC) that pays a triple dividend – it sets children up for life, helps families, and boosts national prosperity. She also spoke to the necessity of addressing inequity, stating that no child born into disadvantage should have to carry that disadvantage through life, and that we can change that trajectory.
There were many salient points made in the panel sessions throughout the day. Catherine Liddle from SNAICC reminded us all that no other culture has 60,000 years of excellence in raising children, growing them to be strong and healthy. However, disheartening statistics on children in out of home care reflect social and systemic problems; we need voice and culture to be reflected in the Early Years Strategy– building on the work done in developing the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Early Childhood Strategy.
Often, when discussing the importance of holistic services for children and families speakers recognised that the Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) have been showing how this can be successfully achieved.
The importance of inclusion and cultural responsiveness was consistently mentioned and there were many good ideas shared on how cultural inclusion can be improved. One suggestion was to build awareness of key concepts in ECEC such as the importance of play-based learning, which Andrew Baeche from Settlement Services International suggested was ‘often not well understood by newly arrived migrant families’.
Social inclusion for children with a disability or developmental concerns also came through as an essential priority for the strategy. Sue Tape from Children and Young People with a Disability Australia made the point that children with a disability are children first and foremost who have same rights and aspirations as other children. Sylvana Mahmic from Plumtree compared investment in families to roads—where the NDIS is a ‘superhighway’, but community, peer-support programs are like neglected backroads. There is so much more we can do to respect and empower families, enabling them to amplify the voice of children.
Our CEO @CatherineLiddl4 at the Early Years Summit today.
— SNAICC (@SNAICC) February 17, 2023
In her role as National Children’s Commissioner, Anne Hollonds spoke about how so much government policy is made for adults, with children being seen as the sole responsibility of parents. She said, ‘We need to put children & families at the centre – co-design policy and programs which are accountable back to them’. Myra Geddes from Goodstart Early Learning also identified that ‘we need universal approaches where children can be supported despite changes in adult lives’ and gave examples of how our systems are entrenching childhood disadvantage rather than reducing it. The work done by the Centre for Policy Development on a proposed ‘Guarantee for Young Children and Families’, as described in the report ‘Starting Better’, was articulated by Leslie Loble and referred to by many of the participants.
Parent advocates talked of how many parents feel isolated and vulnerable and identified the need for this to be addressed in the strategy. Georgie Dent from the Parenthood shared data that just 1 in 10 parents feel like they are doing a good job. Dinah Thomasset, who founded a charity Villagehood Australia, graciously shared her own experience.
There were many rich table discussions throughout the day, but the overall focus remained on surrounding children with stable, nurturing relationships, particularly with family, educators, health professionals and social supports. Inevitably, this involves stabilising the professions working with children and families and fostering inter-disciplinary connections.
By the end of the day, the room was buzzing with ideas. My thinking started to coalesce around the notion of reclaiming ECEC as a public system (primarily government funded) that functions as the backbone of the early years sector. Redefining the model of ECEC would allow us to deliver genuine universal access, meaning that every child, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances, can access the services available. I am not arguing that all services must be owned publicly, but rather that we recognise the role of public investment in the services delivered and collectively determine how, when and what support is provided, rather than being as dependent as we currently are on dispersed decision-making and market forces. I also reflected on the necessity to deliver professional wages for early childhood educators and teachers sooner rather than later. I will flesh these ideas and reflections out in a follow-up article.
I understand that anyone not in the room might feel cynical about the Australian Government’s plan to develop the Early Years Strategy. I have worked in Canberra for over 20 years, been involved in countless strategies, action plans, frameworks and initiatives over that time, and know it takes more than goodwill and clever wordsmithing to actually make a difference. Yet, somehow, this feels different—this feels like a genuine opportunity for historic reform. I think Professor Fiona Stanley AC summed it up best when she said, ‘This government is giving us the best opportunity we have ever had to get things right in the early years and grow a nation that values children more than GDP. We must not fail.’
In their summary at the end of the day, Minister Aly and Minister Rishworth talked about this being the beginning of a journey; a journey to empower and strengthen families, put children at the centre across government portfolios, and elevate children’s outcomes.
If you would like to get involved, the Early Years Strategy Discussion Paper is now open for public submissions until 30 April 2023. You can also share your priorities and experiences through a survey until 3 March 2023. Please visit the Department of Social Services website for more details.