Chifley Research Centre
Monday, 16 November 2020

AFR: Why early childhood education services should be more like school

Chifley’s latest report, Investing in Australia’s Early Childhood Infrastructure, was mentioned by Journalist Tom McIlroy in November 13th’s AFR.

Early childhood education in Australia should be redesigned as a universally accessible and publicly-funded system, focused on improved literacy and numeracy and teaching children to learn, a new report says.

Research by consulting firm PwC and the Labor-aligned Chifley Research Centre says COVID-19 has shown up serious vulnerabilities in the sector, which remains critical to the nation’s social and economic infrastructure.

Early childhood education should be seen as part of a lifetime “education continuum”. Phil Carrick

Among barriers to high quality early learning systems offering the best return on investment, including for vulnerable groups, are inconsistent standards, low funding levels and poor quality information on services.

The report says early childhood education should be viewed as part of an “education continuum” which spans students’ pre-school years through to tertiary study.

Funding for early childhood services by state and federal governments reached $9.8 billion in 2018-19, including through the Child Care Subsidy and federal funding for up to 600 hours of services per child in the year before school.

The report says inconsistent standards between types of providers should be addressed, finding fewer for-profit care operators are meeting national quality standards, with higher rates of pay for teachers closely aligned to service quality.

Analysis of quality ratings showed 19 per cent of private for profit care-based providers were exceeding or meeting best practice standards. In pre-school and kindergarten settings, 70 per cent of state or local government managed services reached the highest standard.

Outcomes of for-profit providers of long day care services were lower, with “teacher-led” models delivering the best outcomes for children.

The report also warns a lack of properly documented information about aspects of early childhood services is limiting the sector’s capacity to improve, including in the areas of provider viability and workforce longevity.

Nearly 8300 approved child care centres operated in Australia in the March quarter, providing services for 1.3 million children and about 895,000 families. More than 45 per cent of children under five years of age use approved child care services.

Australia is at or above average rates of early childhood education participation in the world’s leading economies, with about 40 per cent participation for children under three years of age and 84 per cent for children aged three to five.

Half of providers are for-profit, with about 35 per cent of services run by private, for-profit community managers groups and other organisations.

Chifley executive director Brett Gale said the pandemic showed where changes were needed to improve the system.

“Quality is not properly recognised, staff are poorly paid and receive little to no investment in their careers, and fees are high and were getting worse,” he said.

“Following COVID, the viability of many centres remains under threat. As a society we would be horrified if schools threatened to close during the pandemic due to money and funding problems, but this seems to be a situation we are willing to tolerate in early childhood education.”

Among the report’s recommendations are better reporting requirements for providers, including on service quality and spending on educators; a reset of incentives for cost management and staffing; and changes to workforce models and accessibility.

“This report asks us to stop treating our younger children as second class
when it comes to the provision of quality education services,” Mr Gale said.

“We would not put up with this for schools and we should not put up with it for those pre-school years either”.

About Chifley Research Centre:

The Chifley Research Centre is the Labor Party’s official think tank, committed to advancing public policy debate and progressive thinking in Australia.