As Early Learning Matters Week, draws to a close it is important that we reflect on the value of early learning, our early learning sector, and the outstanding educators, carers and staff working in Centres and Family Day Care.
Early Learning Matters Week is an initiative to raise awareness and understanding of the importance of early learning and recognise the role early learning services play in supporting families and building our society. This is a lived experience with my three children having all benefitted from the support and expertise of early learning educators in the first steps on their learning journeys.
The adversity of this year has highlighted the critical role the early education and care sector has played through their tireless contribution in supporting our community. The sector has not only provided a safe environment for our children to learn, but also helped other essential workers to keep doing their vital jobs.
The sector has been there for families and children, often our most vulnerable, whilst managing the uncertainty presented by dangerous air quality, the bushfire threat, hail and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
It has been a time of reaffirmation for those that know the importance of the sector. And it has been a period of learnings for those that have, in part, taken the sector for granted.
The educational value of a place at a preschool, or a place a long day-care centre or family day care has become paramount. Working parents, no doubt understand the importance of the platform for active participation in the workforce provided by their local centre.
Indeed, this time has demonstrated it is women in our community that rely most on early education arrangements to participate in our workforce. It has been women who have had to carry most of the family load and felt the biggest employment impacts during the COVID crisis. We know that the benefits in terms of life outcomes for children who experience a good early education are significant. However, just as importantly, if we are to drive inclusive growth and maximise workforce participation for women, the provision of care must be made easy, flexible, affordable and high quality.
It also demonstrated that quick and poorly consulted decisions can bring unintended consequences as seen through the underfunding of many centres and family day carers in my electorate due to the Government’s COVID-19 ‘relief’ package. A policy that made a difficult time even more so for many providers, in some cases centres were paid 50% of their income for the same work. a policy that left many families without access to childcare and some early educators without jobs. A policy where the government in fact spent less on the childcare subsidy during the crisis than originally budgeted. A situation that one could hardly argue was acknowledging early educators commitment to our community and economy.
Given that the sector is often taken for granted, has low wages and has a much higher proportion of educators who are women, it is little wonder that although most educators enjoyed their work and appreciated its value, one in five is planning to leave the profession. Clearly this time has shown that elevating the status of the profession and increasing quality must be an ongoing priority.
Those in government departments have hopefully learnt from this time that we must have some level of reform. An economy and community cannot rely on a sector where often margins are so tight that a lease change coupled with a slight decline in attendance can lead to centre collapse, job losses, family disruption and participation barriers.
Those that dryly advise on the economy have hopefully learned from this time that Australia’s economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be dependent on an accessible and affordable early leaning sector. As Australians return to work, they will need to be able to find a childcare place with the hours they need, and they will need to be able to afford it.
Like schools, governments, both state and federal have a stake in early learning. The education and economic outcomes that flow from this system will be critical post COVID-19 transition and if we don’t get it right it will be a handbrake on our economic recovery.
Certainly, the goal of any government current or future, must be to continue to build an accessible and quality early education system where educators, carers, providers, families and government all work together to deliver better social and educational outcomes for our children. A sector that is robust and sustainable, one that stands as a foundation to participation and foundation to our children’s education journey.
Weeks like these do indeed give an opportunity to say thank you. But we know we need more than that. All those that work in the sector and all those that rely on its wonderful people deserve that.
Early Learning does indeed matter.
David Smith MP
Federal Member for Bean
Secretary of Labor’s Education, Science, Research and the Arts Committee