Early Childhood Australia National Conference

Thursday, 09 September 2021

Virtual

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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.

It is great that Sam and her team have been able to organise for the conference to go ahead during such a difficult time.

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 over three years now. I have observed how far the community and the public debate has moved in that time, and particularly over the past 18 months.

The COVID pandemic has played a part.

I believe that the attention that has been on Early Education and Care was a seminal moment for the community. Many people came to see the importance of early education and care both for its educational and economic benefits.

Parents and carers have always respected the work educators do – but I think the pandemic made more people take notice of just how important you all are to the wider community and the economy.

Early education and care came to be seen as an essential service. Educators have kept our community going during some very difficult lockdown periods.

This shift in the discussion has also been aided by the release of new research reports, policy papers and advocacy work – and by the work everyone at this conference is doing to raise the profile of early learning and care.

When it comes to quality of early education and care Australia is performing quite well, with UNICEF recently placing us 12th out of 41 countries for quality. This is a tribute to the work you all do implementing the national quality framework.

We need to defend quality and promote it.

However the delivery of quality is not consistent across all of ECEC and we need to ensure that we are driving improvements to quality across the whole sector.

And not only are we constantly learning factors that improve quality in individual services, but we are starting to better understand the system as a whole.

For example, it appears based on analysis done by Chiefly Research Institute that higher spending as a proportion of revenue by a service on educators and staff actually delivers higher quality, backing what many of us intuitively assume and understand.

Unfortunately, the lack of transparency in the where funding goes does limit some of the conclusions that can be drawn.

I believe that despite the imperfections in the data this is worth having a careful look at.

However, I am concerned that we are at a point where rather than as a country we are focusing how to invest more in this workforce, there is an increasing trend of services needing to apply for staff ratio waivers. This is concerning and could put in jeopardy the quality gains we have made.

The latest data shows that 11.7 per cent of long day care services nationally currently have a staffing waiver.

I am sure this is something that concerns everyone at this conference.

We simply aren’t educating and training enough early educators and teachers – the production line just isn’t making enough to fill the vacancies and gaps.

But we also must not ignore retention and examining why educators are leaving. When you listen to what educators are saying, it is that they aren’t being rewarded enough to stay in the system.

We all know this means the quality of early learning and care will suffer – and the ultimate result of few educators, higher turn over, and more waivers being children get lower quality learning and care.

Quality in ECEC is what delivers children the best start to life and governments must not lose sight of this because I know that the educators such as yourselves have not.
Despite ranking 12th out of 41 countries on the measure of quality, overall Australia ranked 37th.

Affordability and accessibility to ECEC is dragging us down – the UNICEF report placed Australia 34th for affordability and access.

Australia is one of only eight countries where early learning and care consumes at least a quarter of the average wage.

And the number of people staying home and not working because of the cost of child care went up 23 per cent.

The out of pocket costs are out of control for so many families.

The fact is, for Australian families the cost of childcare is some of the most expensive in the world.

I want an Australia where every parent – especially women – can work the hours they want and need.

And I want every child to get access to the wonderful benefits of early learning and care.

Last October, in his first Budget Reply address, Anthony Albanese outlined Labor’s plan to deliver cheaper child care and move towards a universal system in government.

Labor’s plan for more affordable and accessible early education and child care will make 97 per cent of all families in the system better off.

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

Our policy is an investment in the country.

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

The return on investment is conservatively estimated at 2 to 1 – we all love building new roads and rail lines but they don’t get close to a return like this.

The research shows that our plan will help women increase their hours of paid work by 13 per cent – the equivalent of 30,000-40,000 full-time jobs.

This is an economic reform as well as cost of living relief for families.

We will also 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.

This is a structural change that will supercharge Australia’s economic growth – and we also know it will help give children the best start in life.

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.

That’s why we are all here – we all want our kids to get the best of everything.

So, while we have come far in the last couple of years, there is still work to do.

But thank you for the work you are doing
•    from early educators growing our youngest minds,
•    to researchers expanding the knowledge base,
•    to advocates pushing the policy debate

You are all making a huge impact.

I look forward to continuing to work with you all.

Thank you.

ENDS

More News

Wednesday, 25 August 2021
Sky News First Edition – child care funding, vaccine targets
Friday, 20 August 2021
Morrison-Joyce Government must ensure vaccine supply for early educaotrs
Thursday, 19 August 2021
2CC with Leon Delaney – crisis in early learning sector, vaccine rollout and young people