Turnbull needs to lift his game

Sadly, every year I’ve been the Early Childhood Education Minister, I get contacted by anxious early childhood teachers and parents. Teachers are unsure about whether they will have a job the next year and parents are worried that their child will miss out the kindergarten hours that their older sibling got. Parents are desperate to know if they will they be slugged up to an extra $2000 per year for alternative childcare arrangements if kinder hours are cut. This anxiety and worry is completely unfair. It’s also completely unnecessary.

The cause of the uncertainty has been the refusal of the Turnbull Government to sign up to a long term national partnership for kindergarten funding. Australia hasn’t had a long term partnership since 2008. The Turnbull Government is currently spending millions of taxpayer dollars promoting their childcare changes which will leave 288,000 families worse off, yet they won’t commit $120 million each year towards their five hour share of fifteen hours of four year old kindergarten in Victoria.

When we meet as Education Ministers each year, my interstate counterparts across the political divide, raise this issue and explain the havoc that this is causing for early childhood education in our States. We have to fight tooth and nail to get the Federal Minister to even have a real discussion about it. But early childhood education is so important that Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, raised it again at COAG recently.

Earlier this month an independent report concluded what we already knew – “that short-term funding arrangements cause uncertainty and hamper planning”. There have been six National Partnership Agreements for Universal Access in just 10 years. The Review concludes that “it is a lost opportunity for governments to show sustained commitment to quality early childhood education”.

The report also found that both Australian and international evidence shows investing in early childhood education improves school results. Children perform better in NAPLAN tests, are more likely to complete to Year 12 and need less support whilst they are at school if they’ve previously participated in quality early childhood education. It found the best investment governments could make to lift school results was to invest more in pre-school education.

The report, by Susan Pascoe AM and Professor Deborah Brennan,  Lifting Our Game – report of the review to achieve educational excellence in Australian schools through early childhood interventions, points out that Australia is falling behind other countries in our investment in the early years.

Australia invests less than 0.2 per cent of GDP in ‘pre-primary’ care – only a third of the OECD average. In fact, in 2013 Australia ranked near the bottom of the league table – 24 out of 26 OECD nations – in pre-school investment.

Interestingly, the Report recommends that Australian Governments provide early childhood education to all three year olds as well as four year olds.

New Zealand and the UK already provide two years of pre-school education, as do many other nations. In a World Bank 2015 survey of more than 200 nations, Australia sat with only 11 nations including Iran and Nigeria that provide only one year of early childhood education – and in Australia even that one year is at risk!

Providing two years of funded kinder is a laudable long-term goal that deserves a national conversation, but it will be very hard for States and the Commonwealth to embark on an additional year of early childhood education whilst the uncertainty regarding four year olds remains.

So at a time when other nations are expanding their early childhood education, in Australia we are having to fight to protect what we’ve already got!

The importance of the early years is clear. There is not debate about this.

Neuroscience has shown how a child’s brain development is stimulated and their social and cognitive skills develop, by participating in quality early childhood education. And as a nation we can both invest in measures that enhance workforce participation as well as lift our early childhood outcomes – one doesn’t have to come at the expense of the other.

Over the past three years Victoria has lifted its game. Our government has invested record funding in early years education as part of a $202.1 million early years reform plan.  This will see needs-based funding for kindergartens roll out for the first time from next year, paying for speech therapists, child psychologists and other experts to ensure that children are ready for school when they start their prep year. Now we just need the Turnbull Government to step up too and provide certainty and permanent funding for four year old kindergarten. It is the very least they can do.

It’s time their short-sightedness stops short-changing our kids and kinders.

Sign our petition and tell the Federal Government that a cut to our kids’ kinder is a cut to their education: http://thismatters.org.au/kindercuts