Taking stock of early childhood education

There was little focus on child care and early education during the recent Federal election. And for good reason.

Ambitious and complex policy reform processes to lift quality across early childhood services are well underway. The building blocks of reform are in place. Change is happening.

As we are all aware, change was needed. Huge increases in demand for child care over the last decade or so resulted in a system straining to cope. Many childcare centres struggled because of rapid growth, coupled with a myriad of regulatory requirements and severe shortages of qualified staff. And sometimes quality suffered.

In the last 20 years, the number of childcare centres has grown dramatically to nearly 6000. The number of children using centrebased care, plus those using family day care and out-of-school services, jumped to nearly 900,000. Early childhood staff numbers grew massively, but high staff turnover and a chronic shortage of qualified personnel have meant inconsistencies and variability in the quality of education and care.

While strong evidence points to the long-term value of early education for developmental growth and school success, a lack of services in some areas or poor-quality programs meant many children missed out on quality early education.

Most worryingly, the most vulnerable children in the poorest communities suffer most.

But substantial and positive policy changes to the early childhood ‘system’ as a whole are in train. And while these need to be finalised and will take time to phase in, the building blocks are in place.

Today, the early childhood sector, government and community are largely united in valuing early education. We all recognise the need to improve and assure quality.

For the first time since preschools and childcare centres hurtled down their separate tracks 100 years ago, there has been a serious national policy shift around the value of education and the need for quality early education programs for all children.

Care and education are coming together in a policy sense. There is greater focus on quality, educational significance and outcomes.

Work around the early childhood reform agenda has been united. Commonwealth and state governments and expert policy groups have worked with key stakeholders to develop and progress the change agenda.

Nationally we’re committed to providing 15 hours of preschool education per week with a qualified early childhood teacher for all four-year-old children.

Together, we’re working on the details of a national streamlined, regulatory, accreditation and quality assurance approach for childcare centres and preschools.

The new national curriculum framework-the Early Years Learning Framework-is being rolled out. It provides a foundation for building education quality and consistency across Australia and, while full implementation requires sustained professional support in many centres, change is happening.

Developing a national quality framework is a slow process. And it must be. For change to be successful it must be thoughtfully and deliberately planned and staged. Legislative, jurisdictional and funding changes take time to plan and implement. Increasing the supply of qualified early childhood educators, for example, is a slow process.

Yet to be tackled are some of the really hard issues around remuneration; pay equity/differentials; working conditions; professional status and registration; professional learning and support structures; career pathways; incentives for early childhood teachers to work in remote areas; and building a strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander early childhood educator workforce.

Catering for diversity and ensuring equitable educational outcomes for each child is always a challenge. And we’re all concerned about the cost of early childhood services.

With recent research from Harvard University economists again pointing to the long-term value of early childhood education, and especially the value of quality teaching in boosting learning outcomes and later earning potential, it’s clear that Australia’s investment in early childhood quality across the board is a wise one.

In this issue of Every Child, articles on the arts; drama and music; play’s foundational role in learning; digital technologies; and working with families show how the Early Years Learning Framework can guide planning and demonstrate that building quality is an ongoing process.

We look forward to seeing readers at the Early Childhood Australia Conference in Adelaide from 29 September to 2 October.

Alison Elliott

Taking stock of early childhood education by Alison Elliott was featured in Every Child Vol. 16 No. 3—Play and learning. Click here to purchase your copy today!