This election matters to ECE
Access to early learning has become a key election issue. Mounting evidence shows that all children benefit from early learning, although the largest benefits accrue to the most disadvantaged children.
The latest AEDC data shows we still have a long way to go in helping disadvantaged children to start school alongside their peers.
Evidence of the need to start early is gaining broad traction in Australia, and politicians may be seeing it as a vote winner. Its inclusion as a topic in the ABC’s Vote Compass reveals early learning is a mainstream issue. Just this week, the 7.30 Report focused precious airtime on the rise of early childhood education and care as a vote winner (or loser) in a story titled Why childcare is an election battleground.
This election campaign has been interesting as policy attention has taken on a more comprehensive attitude to the benefits for children, parents and educators, rather than the traditional approach to ECE as a mechanism for parental workforce participation.
An exception to this broader approach, the current government acknowledges there are benefits for children to engage in high quality ECE but maintains the priority for funding must be productivity. At a recent forum, spokesperson Senator James Paterson, summed this view up as:
I think it’s fair to say that all children [in childcare places] should come from families who are either working or making some other contribution to the community.
The Coalition’s election promises provided little new for early learning, perhaps because the government has only recently delivered its new Child Care subsidy in the Jobs for Families Package.
Additional funding has been provided to enhance the subsidy, and to improve access to preschool. One more year of non-recurrent funding for 4-year-old preschool has also been offered, with a promise to ‘work with the states and territories to support a longer-term plan’.
The ALP has embarked on an ambitious agenda with a three-part focus:
- universal access to two years of preschool, with 3-year-olds added from 2021
- 100% fee subsidies for families earning less than $69,527 and increased subsidies for middle income families
- a controversial commitment to increase early childhood educator wages by 20% over eight years, including those already being paid above award.
Labor has announced many other initiatives, including a commitment to the national quality framework, an early years strategy, and an ‘urgent’ review of budget based funding and the CCS activity test.
Higher subsidies, though welcome, must not open the door for higher fees. Labor plans to engage the ACCC to police ECE fee increases and to find ways to control child care fee increases in the future. The party is adamant that the fee hikes seen in the past, particularly from large private providers, will not be tolerated. The ACCC has had mixed success in similar tasks, such as the introduction of Australia’s goods and services tax, and monitoring the impact of the Carbon Tax.
The Greens platform
The Greens party has also released an ambitious agenda including ‘fee-free childcare’ for most families, abolishing the activity test, and paying educators fair wages.
They would reallocate some of the Community Child Care funds to provide permanent funding to ‘community controlled, culturally safe integrated early years services, to ensure access in areas of high First Nations populations and high levels of disadvantage’ (source: Greens response to ELEB #election2019).
The Greens point to wider policies with implications for early childhood educators too, such as their position on free tertiary education for all TAFE and undergraduate university students.
Risks and benefits
It is fantastic that early learning is looming so large in the election and getting the attention it deserves.
However, the new attention presents a new risk: if early learning does not ultimately sway voters it could again be relegated to a ‘B grade’ issue and taken off the political agenda. If, for example, Labor doesn’t see an increase in votes for its substantial extra subsidy for CCS, it’s hard to picture it giving such attention to ECE in the next election.
With universal access preschool funding currently not guaranteed beyond 2020, and an impending workforce shortage, it would be bad news for children, parents and educators if politicians don’t see a payback for their new attention to the sector.
This is election is crucially important – but the work doesn’t stop here.
The early learning sector has done a great job so far in unifying to support access to early learning for more children, especially in the two years before school.
We need to stay loud and active, regardless of the election result, to ensure the needs of children continue to be heard, that important research is understood by non-experts, and that the value provided by early childhood educators is appropriately rewarded.