The Senate recently passed a motion calling the Federal Government to have the Productivity Commission inquire into early childhood education and care funding and access. The issues are complex and an inquiry is entirely appropriate because research tells us early childhood education and care is one of the most effective ways to give our children the best possible start in life.
There are tens of thousands of children from disadvantaged background who miss out on this start because their family cannot access or afford the cost of services.
We have heard a lot from the Federal Government about providing "universal access" to early education services. However there are real questions, particularly in some states such as NSW, about what universal access means and how it can be achieved.
The current COAG commitment to enable children access to early childhood education and care for 15 hours per week in the year prior to starting school is a good start. However, there are concerns about whether universal access will reach the very children who evidence shows are most likely to benefit. We need to address the real questions about access for children in areas of high disadvantage. More must be done to improve access to these services for three-year-olds. Funding and access to early childhood education and care services is one of the most critical issues facing policy makers in Australia today.
In NSW, there are many vulnerable families who are struggling to access affordable, quality education and care for their young children. This may mean children start school with developmental delays. Early childhood education and care services can support cognitive, social and emotional development and early communication skills through play-based learning.
At Noah’s Ark Preschool and Casual Care Centre, a UnitingCare Children’s Services facility in the Blacktown LGA which has a number of vulnerable and low income families, the centre has created a Vulnerable Families Policy. This policy helps some children attend their service and without such support they would not be able to participate.
Noah’s Ark Preschool Director, Carinne Wood, said the Vulnerable Families Policy was created to help address the gap for low income families.
"Even with the rebates, there are families living in disadvantaged communities who can’t afford the services," Wood said.
"They know our services would benefit their children and help make a positive start to their schooling lives but they just can’t afford the gap between the childcare benefit and the fee."
The evidence demanding investment in early childhood education is compelling. It is widely accepted that children’s participation in quality early childhood education and care significantly improves their abilities in primary school, high school and in later life. It is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who will benefit most from these experiences. We also know that the brain develops early. The brain is 80 per cent developed by aged three, 92 per cent developed by aged four.
Children who do not have access to the benefits of early childhood education and services can start to be left behind at school. As a result, more intensive and more expensive supports are needed as children get older.
In 2009, 80.9 per cent of Australian children attended a preschool program (including long day care centres) in the year before they started school. However, these numbers plummet in suburbs of high disadvantage. For example, in Blacktown only 62 per cent of children attended a preschool program in the year before school. Similarly in Minto it was 63 per cent. In Ambervale it was only 45 per cent.
The findings of the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI), a national measure of a child’s development in their first year of school, showed the communities where children are falling behind are the same communities with lower preschool participation rates. In 2009, 23.6 per cent of Australian children were developmentally vulnerable in at least one domain. This rate increases in areas where fewer children have access to preschool services. In Ambervale, the rate is 34 per cent. In Blacktown it is 30 per cent and Minto 29 per cent.
This is why we must have the full weight of the Productivity Commission to take a hard look at the early childhood education system. The Commission must assess the best way to fund these services, and how genuine, universal access can be delivered. Progress on the National Disability Insurance Scheme shows what can happen when governments embrace the work of the Productivity Commission.
We know that a failure to make targeted investments in the early years of life will affect children now and have us playing catch up for decades to come. If we can listen to evidence and act on issues such as climate change disability services right, surely we can listen to the evidence and create a system that gives all children a fair chance.
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