Brett Gale
Thursday, 12 November 2020

We need to treat early childhood education more like school

The Chifley Research Centre policy think tank has today released an important policy brief highlighting the need for a fundamental rethink on Australia’s approach to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC).  

The Chifley Report “Investing in Australia’s Early Childhood Infrastructure” calls for a new approach to early years education and care in Australia by considering this vital social infrastructure as a key part of the education continuum. 

 “The impacts of COVID-19 highlighted the vulnerabilities in our current system of ECEC provision”, said Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre, Brett Gale. 

“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. 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”, Mr Gale said.

The analysis in this report and the available data illustrates a gap between our expectations of early years education and other parts of the education system. The report calls for a reassessment of our basic approach to ECEC to ensure that Australia has universally accessible ECEC.

Based on data analysed by PwC the report recommends that Australia should aim for an ECEC system that balances several goals:  universal access, quality and sustainability. 

  • Access and participation – More children are participating in ECEC, boosting workforce participation and access to vital early years education.
  • Quality – High quality education and care, driven by skilled educators, supporting child development.
  • Sustainability – The sector is robust and can ensure ongoing success at the service and system levels.

The report suggests that lessons from the wider education system are valuable when thinking about a fit-for-purpose model for ECEC. The individual and societal benefits of early years education for all children, and particularly the most vulnerable groups, are well understood. Extending the beginning of the education continuum to include the pre-school years would recognise the importance of ECEC in providing education alongside care. 

Mr Gale said, “This report asks us to stop treating our younger children as second class when it comes to the provision of quality education services.    We would not put up with this for schools and we should not put up with it for those pre-school years either”.  

“With this report we have also attempted to shine a light on the fact that quality of care really is related to expenditure”, Mr Gale said.

The available data suggests that a model in which providers are systematically incentivised to reduce costs – given the close relationship between educators and quality – tends to facilitate a trade-off between cost and quality.   In the case of centre-based care, for-profit providers (comprising two-thirds of all services) broadly do not achieve the same service quality outcomes as not-for-profit providers (see table below).

The data also found that there is a clear tendency for the Not-for-Profit providers to spend a higher proportion of total expenditure on educators than their for-profit counterparts.

The Chifley Research Centre has identified three key opportunities for action that can help move Australian ECEC into the education continuum with the objective being improved quality and access. 

  1. Requiring greater provider transparency about their spending on service quality
  2. Investing in a skilled, stable workforce with more investment in educators’ time and careers
  3. Building a fit-for-purpose model of universal ECEC provision

The report concludes that Australia’s ECEC system has evolved in a responsive way, now we need to be proactive to set it up for future success.  

“A universally accessible, publicly funded ECEC sector building basic literacy and numeracy, as well as ‘teaching to learn’, needs to be seen as a key part of our social and economic infrastructure not just as another industry”, Mr Gale said.  

“Australia’s economic recovery from COVID will depend on an affordable and accessible ECEC sector that can help maximise workforce participation.  As importantly, our long term economic and social future depends on a quality start to the education of our youngest Australians”, he said. 

Table: ECEC services by quality ratings, provider type and market share (colour coded)

About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.