APS College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists Conference

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Good morning everyone – it’s great to able to virtually join you for the conference.

I wish to start by acknowledging the Kaurna people of the Adelaide plains – the country in which I am standing.

I was delighted to be able to accept this invitation to address educational and developmental psychologists.

It’s been a long time since I have called myself a practicing psychologist, but my training comes in very handy as a parliamentarian.

A lot of people asked me why I moved from being a psychologist to being a member of parliament – in truth I would have loved to spend more time in the profession but sometimes when opportunity knocks you must grab it – while many people I speak to think that being a politician and a psychologist is poles apart however for me the two jobs are not so different.

Psychology as with politics is working with people and communities to improve their quality of life. With the aim to ensure every individual has the opportunity to reach their potential. To achieve this, we need to listen to individuals and provide the support they need to thrive but also address structural barriers that exist in community and society.

While working as a psychologist, I was focused on adult mental health but my role in politics has found me in the early years space. I love this area because in my mind the early years is where we can make the most impact.

We are all passionate about early childhood education and development.

As educational and developmental psychologists, you are deeply invested in the future of our children.

There’s a lot of very important discussions and debates going on in Australia at the moment – and I know I am biased – but giving children the best start in life is and always will be one of the most critical policy issues we deal with as a community.

I’ve been fortunate to be in this portfolio for just over three years now. I have observed how far the community and the public debate has moved in that time, and particularly recently.

The COVID pandemic may have played a part. There has been a lot of public discussion about the best use of government funding during the pandemic and how to get the best bang for the taxpayer dollar.

Research reports, policy papers and experts have all helped push along these public debates.

In the early childhood portfolio, there’s been well researched and compelling reports – from the Front Project, the Australia Institute, Grattan Institute, PwC – which all built the case for change and increased investment in quality early childhood education and care.

Of course I didn’t need any convincing of the merit and need to increase investment in the early years.

There is a wealth of evidence demonstrating the benefits and outcomes delivered by high quality early learning. The most recent review of the national preschool program found a 10 percentage point difference in developmental Australian Early Development Census outcomes for disadvantaged children.

That is, children from disadvantaged communities who received quality preschool do 10 per cent better on developmental outcomes than disadvantaged children who don’t. This has important implications for how these children will fare in school, their learning, and their health in the long term.

Everyone attending the conference knows how critical it is to get children off to the best possible start in life.

But these facts were not gaining a lot of traction outside of the education space.

That’s why the batch of reports released last year were so important.

They helped frame early education as primarily an economic policy and a reform to supercharge economic growth as we emerge from the Covid recession.

They made the argument we won’t have an economic recovery that works for all Australians if we don’t recognise the issues facing women in the workforce and design policies to help them accordingly.

Grattan Institute research concluded that women with young children will increase their hours of paid work by 13 per cent if the system is reformed to make it more accessible – the equivalent of 30,000-40,000 full-time jobs.

The reports estimated that that reform of child care could generate GDP growth of between $4 billion and $11 billion per annum.

The benefit of this investment to the economy was emphasised by PwC, which calculated that every $1 spent on early education and care generates $2 of benefits to the economy and the community – through higher earnings for the child, the parents, lower criminal activity, lower welfare costs and better health outcomes.

The return on investment (ROI) was calculated to be 103 per cent – an ROI above many other projects. PwC concluded that spending on ECEC “can be viewed as a strong long-term investment, with quantifiable financial returns”.

Some of us may squirm to hear about early education and development being talked about in terms of returns on investment and economic growth – but I have to say, it has been critical to boosting the profile of the issue.

It has helped the issue go from the education pages to the economic and national affairs pages.

We’ve all had to adapt to a different world in the past year, and this is no different.

We know that women have been hit hard by the COVID recession – payroll jobs worked by women have fallen by 5.6 per cent since the beginning of the crisis.

The female unemployment rate is 6.5 per cent – and 7.5 per cent for females seeking full time work.

There are other structural issues in the economy that have been impacting on women for some time, including the 14 per cent gender pay gap, which leads to poorer outcomes through life and into retirement.

And the fact that women do more unpaid work, more caring, more low paid and more casual work.

Investment in early education and care is of great importance not only for children but a critical way to supporting women get back into the workforce.

These facts were crucial in helping me make the case for a bold new policy in Shadow Cabinet.

In October last year Anthony Albanese released Labor’s plan for more affordable and accessible early education and care for 97 per cent of all families in the system.

We will increase the maximum subsidy to 90 per cent and flatten the taper rates.

We will abolish the annual subsidy cap – one of the features of the current system which presents an obstacle to work for the secondary income earner.

We will ask the ACCC to design a price regulation mechanism to shed light on costs and fees and examine the relationship between funding, fees, profits and educators’ salaries. We know early educators do not get paid adequately for the work they do.

We will also ask the Productivity Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the system with the aim of implementing a universal 90 per cent subsidy for all families.

We know that this is just one piece of the economic rebuild story for Australia and for children and women – but it will have a significant impact on helping women, and Australian families, get ahead.

It will also be a transformative reform for Australia’s children and will help give them the best possible start in life.

When it comes to early education and care there are three pillars that I believe are critical – quality, affordability and accessibility.

I want to thank you all for the vital work you do as psychologists.

You are all playing such an important role in helping unlock the potential in our youngest minds, and identifying issues early – because we all know early intervention is so important.

I hope you are all able to participate and engage with your colleagues during the virtual conference, and deepen your knowledge.

Thank you.


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