One of the most anticipated education reports this year is being considered by ministers in Alice Springs today. The draft review of the National Partnership on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education offers governments an opportunity to make a real impact on their constituents’ lives.
The Nous Group analysis of preschool has turned out an overarching finding for governments: “that to sustain and further build on progress, funding should continue at a minimum of current levels”.
This opens a door of opportunity to governments. They have an independent green light to deliver the secure funding environment that will see higher quality early education delivered across more of Australia.
The review finds that “funding uncertainty’’ around the federal government’s contribution to preschools is a ‘‘real and important’’ issue. It says governments should commit to supporting universal access to preschool and future funding arrangements should ‘‘guarantee funding for a minimum of four or five years’’.
The current funding agreement between the Commonwealth and the states has been renewed annually or biannually for the past seven years. A stronger and longer partnership could improve governments’ ability to work together, regardless of election outcomes, to ensure all Australian children have access to early education programs that deliver the biggest returns on investment.
The first-ever Australian study into the economic benefits of early education, released this year by The Front Project and PwC, provides a marker on the tangible benefits to children, families, business and government — a 2:1 return.
Not only does investing in early education provide immediate and direct support for children and their families, but it also makes economic sense. For every dollar invested into universal early education in the year before school, the community receives $2 back — it is an investment opportunity like no other.
Educators, community services and families with children all intimately understand the benefits of early childhood education. Businesses struggling to employ workers with skills to innovate and expand their operations are also throwing support behind initiatives to improve access to early childhood education, noting the long-term benefits in developing creativity, collaboration and problem-solving skills.
Peter Coleman, CEO of one of Australia’s largest energy companies, Woodside, has stated that the early years are crucial for building a happy, healthy and productive future workforce. PwC Chief Economist, Jeremy Thorpe, says early learning has a substantial impact on children’s development and benefits increase throughout their lives.
Some things governments can consider to transform children’s outcomes and see the greatest returns on their bottom lines include:
- Investing in quality. Every child should have access to a quality early childhood program that enhances their learning and development. Currently, a quarter of services aren’t meeting the National Quality Standard.
- Committing to ongoing funding. A strengthened, ongoing commitment to the national partnership for preschool will lead to improved service viability, planning, job security and quality. The current agreement is up for renewal.
- Increasing access. Ensure children in disadvantaged communities have access to quality early childhood education to help fix the inequality we’re seeing throughout their learning journeys.
- Offering two years. Australia is one of the few OECD countries not offering two years of preschool, putting us at risk of falling further behind on international benchmark tests, like PISA.
Any fragmenting of responsibilities could mean individual states and territories having to independently navigate the critical and complex early learning system, risking growing inequality across suburbs and state lines.
If we truly want our children and our nation to be more and have more than we had, then ministers should seize the opportunity on their table today, and make this possible.
Jane Hunt is CEO of The Front Project, an independent national enterprise working to create positive change in Australia’s early childhood education system.