Parliament – importance of early education

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

This matter of public importance is critically important. There is nothing more important than the early education of our children, and Labor knows this. We have known this for a long time. On this side of the House, we know that quality early education leads to a range of better education, social and health outcomes. It literally lays down the solid foundation for life.

It’s not just Labor that has this story to tell. There are stacks and stacks of international research that says that investing in the early years leads to a significant return later in life. Studies from the UK and the United States, for example, have shown that children who have attended preschool had significantly better reading and maths scores in primary school and better results at age 16. But we know here local data shows that preschoolers have higher language and cognition NAPLAN scores in Year 3. Of course, children who attend early learning have better success, are more likely to graduate from high school and have better social outcomes. This research confirms that the benefits are actually higher for vulnerable children.

These are the facts. Labor doesn’t need convincing. That is why we have a proud history of investing in early education. Two of the many critical policies that we implemented in government were the national preschool program for four-year-olds and the National Quality Framework. The preschools program has been a critical public policy achievement. Indeed, universal access, led by Julia Gillard, has seen enrolments of four-year-olds in preschool increase from 77 per cent to 93 per cent. This is a great achievement, one that I think we should all be proud of.

We backed this preschool commitment with a national quality agenda in order to lift educational quality and safety standards in the early years. The quality framework is also a success story, with 57 per cent of services having improved their quality rating when reassessed and 75 per cent of services now meeting or exceeding the national quality standard. Australia’s four-year-olds are now enjoying the benefit of universal access, and the children attending early learning centres and preschools are enjoying a play based learning environment and being educated by qualified early learning educators. This is Labor’s legacy. Of course, it should be bipartisan. It should be welcomed and supported across the chamber, but it hasn’t been under this coalition government.

This government has a shocking record—which continues to get worse—when it comes to early education. Since being elected in 2013 the government has refused to commit to long-term funding certainty for preschools. It has begrudgingly rolled over one-year stopgap funding for preschools, creating massive uncertainty for families, staff and the sector. At the moment our preschools right across the country are funded for only one year, until the end of the 2019 school year. How are families and preschools meant to plan for their future, enrol children, sign leases, recruit teachers, when they don’t even know whether their funding is secure? This is not good enough for the future of our children. There are 350,000 preschool children and their families who are now in limbo.

The government have seen fit to give long-term certainty to our big banks, locking in tax cuts for a decade. They tell us that that is important for certainty, that it will help us give the big banks the opportunity to make profits into the future. Well, how about our young children? How about those who deserve certainty into the future? They are our future. It is time for the government to be honest with the Australian people. The minister is trying to claim that he is somehow funding preschools into the long term. That’s not what the budget papers say. The budget papers are very, very clear. What they say is that there is zero, zero, zero money past 2020 for funding for early education. Now, isn’t that a coincidence? That gets this government through until after an election without their having to commit to funding for early education.

We have seen the minister, who used to be a cheerleader for universal access, now crab walking away. In fact, he’s looking for any excuse—every excuse—not to fund our preschools. In February, he said, ‘We must improve the quality of the data.’ That seems like an excuse when we’re seeing success in our preschools. Then he said, ‘We’re not going to give the states a blank cheque.’ There’s never been a blank cheque when it comes to preschools. There were important agreements between the states and territories that he himself, as minister, has decided to rip up. Last week his office confirmed that the program is indeed scheduled to end in 2020. He said that he would ‘iron out any policy settings into the future’. Well, that is certainly not a commitment. What does ‘iron out policy settings into the future’ mean? It certainly gives no comfort to preschools and long-daycare centres around Australia that are delivering high-quality education.

This is not the only cut that this government has made. When it came to the national quality agenda, state and territory services all around the country believed that this minister would come to the table and renew the agreement. What he actually did was rip up the agreement. He cut $20 million from the program. He walked away from quality in our early education centres—quality that was seeing proper checks being made, quality that was seeing improvement in our centres and quality that was keeping our children safe and giving them an excellent education. This minister ripped up that agreement and walked away. Rather than build on the successful agenda, the government has said, ‘There is nothing for us to do.’ What, to save $20 million a year? At the same time, they are wanting to give $17 billion to the big banks. That shows this government’s priorities.

There’s another fact that I think the House might be interested in. That is the fact that funding preschool costs about $440 million a year. That is the same amount that this government could find for a small philanthropic organisation. It was backed by big business, found at the back of the couch, not requested and not wanted. It was solicited by the government, in the words of the environment minister. They are willing to give away this money, ensuring that this organisation is able to get the money without even asking. Well, preschools are asking, families are asking and children are all asking this government, ‘Where is our money? Will they commit to preschool? Will they commit to early education?’ The signs are not good.

This minister has form. He treats early education like every other part of the education system. Whether it’s cuts to schools, cuts to universities or cuts to TAFE, this minister has marked it to be cut from his own portfolio. Let me remind the House that he is so out of touch with the needs of families. He’s so out of touch with what ordinary families are going through that he wanted to be congratulated when childcare fees went up by five per cent. He wanted a pat on the back. His response when he was asked about this was: ‘Families can just move centres. They can just change centres.’ He has no understanding about what it means to have a connection with a centre. He has no understanding of families building relationships with educators or the impact that it has on families when these prices increase.

It is time the minister commits to funding our preschools. It’s time he commits to the quality agenda. If the banks need certainty, our preschools certainly do. Let’s see the minister lock in money for a decade for our preschools and then we will know he is serious about early education. Until he does that, he is failing the children and families of Australia.

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