The best start in life: Early childhood education and care

Early childhood education and care matters



High quality ECEC makes a real and lasting difference to the lives of children across their lifespan. Research has consistently demonstrated that quality ECEC can have an impact on a child’s social, emotional and learning outcomes, educational attainment, economic and social participation, and family wellbeing[1].

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has outlined developmental reasons why early childhood is a critical period for the realisation of children’s rights. During this period young people experience the most rapid period of growth and change during the human lifespan; young children actively make sense of the physical, social and cultural dimensions of the world they inhabit, and the earliest years provide the foundation for their physical and mental health[2].

Despite the considerable body of evidence that demonstrates the significant and lifelong value of quality ECEC, the 2015 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) found that more than one in five (22 per cent) ACT children were developmentally vulnerable when entering school in one or more domains of physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, and communication skills and general knowledge[3]. This has remained consistent between 2009 and 2015. The AEDS also shows that children who are most socioeconomically disadvantaged are two and a half times as likely to be developmentally vulnerable than those who are least socio-economically disadvantaged[4].

The current policy environment

All Australian governments have committed to implementing the National Quality Framework (NQF) for Early Childhood Education and Care. Under the NQF, each early childhood education service is assessed and rated against a set of National Quality Standards, which cover aspects of quality service such as educational program and practice, staff/child ratios, features of the physical setting, and relationships with children[5]. The NQF has achieved, for the first time in Australia, a clear national focus on the importance of quality education and care for children.

All Australian governments have committed to the National Partnership Agreement to Universal access to early childhood education for 2016-17. The Partnership provides funding for the delivery of 15 hours per week of preschool education by a qualified early childhood teacher in the year before primary school.

The Australian Government has in place a work, training and study test for access to the Child Care Rebate and Benefit. The Government has proposed a new ‘Child Care Subsidy’ which will replace the Child Care Benefit and Rebate. This subsidy will have even greater emphasis on the on the amount of work, study or training undertaken, and will be limited based on hours of engagement in these activities[6]. This policy is dependent on the passage of legislation and has received significant criticism from social policy stakeholders who claim that it will make it even more difficult for people experiencing disadvantage to access ECEC.

In the ACT, public funded preschool programs are provided by Government preschools. The ACT Government funds 12 hours of preschool per week, with the additional three hours funding by the Australian Government. The ACT Government also provides peppercorn lease arrangements and maintenance support to some Not-for-Profit (NFP) operated ECEC centres. These arrangements make it possible to provide ECEC services in areas that would be deemed ‘non-viable’ on a for-profit basis.

Our role in ECEC

YWCA Canberra has been providing ECEC in the ACT for more than 30 years. We have three ECEC centres; Campbell Cottage, Winyu in Gungahlin, and Conder Early Childhood Services. Through these Centres in 2016, we reached 523 children from 405 families.

We are also one of the largest employer-based providers of Family Day Care in Australia. In 2015-16 165 children from 137 families accessed our Family Day Care.

YWCA Canberra also delivers nationally recognised qualifications for ECEC educators through our Registered Training Organisation (RTO- National Number: 1373). In our RTO in 2015-16 alone, 178 people commenced ECEC training (Certificate lll and Diploma) and 100 people received First Aid training.

Policy roadmap for action

To ensure a stable, prosperous, and equitable ACT, creating equal opportunities for children and young people must be a policy priority. The ACT Government has a vital role to play in ensuring all our children, particularly those who are most vulnerable or at risk, have access to high quality ECEC.

YWCA Canberra firmly believes in the value of quality ECEC within our community. We also believe that every child has the right to high quality early childhood experiences.

While much progress has been made in Australia in improving the quality and reach of ECEC over the past five years, these actions still leave Australia lagging behind other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in the provision of ECEC. For example, in 2010 the Australian Government’s expenditure in early education for children three years and older ranked Australia second last of 30 OECD countries, spending 0.06 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on this, compared to an OECD average of 0.47 per cent[7]. Australia’s existing ECEC policies are also not reaching children who need them the most; children in our community experiencing significant disadvantage.

High quality early education is needed in the two years prior to school. The evidence supporting this policy is clear. For example, a longitudinal study from the United Kingdom tracked 3,000 children from the age of three through to sixteen years, assessing the impact of early childhood education on participants’ longer term outcomes. The study found that the more months a child spends in quality early childhood education, the better their language skills will be, and that an early start (aged two or three years) is linked with better intellectual attainment at school entry. The researchers concluded that two or more years in a high quality preschool environment had the biggest statistical impact on intellectual development and early literacy skills[8], [9].

NFP providers play a key role in ensuring quality early childhood education is affordable and accessible, particularly for families on low incomes. NFP ECEC providers also need to be supported by the ACT Government to continue to provide quality services to all Canberrans, through the provision of peppercorn lease arrangements and through the timely maintenance of community facilities where NFP ECEC exist.

Policy recommendations

  • That the ACT Government demonstrates its commitment to ECEC by:
    • Extending the provision of publically funded preschool to NFP ECEC providers to ensure greater access to preschool across the ACT.
    • Developing a longer term roadmap for action for ECEC in the ACT, including strategies for the improvement of access to children experiencing disadvantage who are currently falling through the gaps, as identified by the AEDC.
    • Entering a long-term agreement for peppercorn lease arrangements for NFP ECEC providers, and increasing maintenance funding available to these facilities.
  • That the ACT Government works with the Australian Government and other jurisdictional Governments to:
    • Make a permanent commitment to funding Universal Access for four year olds
    • Extend publically funded preschool to three year olds, allowing children to have access to at least 15 hours of ECEC two years prior to primary school.
    • Adequately resource the implementation of the National Quality Framework to continue to improve ECEC.
    • Remove the work, training and study test for access to the childcare rebate or benefit payments, and remove any additional barriers to accessing support for ECEC.

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References

  1. O’Connell, M., Fox, S., Hinz, B & Cole, H, Quality Early Education for All: Fostering creative, entrepreneurial, resilient and capable learners, MITCHELL REPORT NO. 01/2016, April 2016
  2. UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No 7, para 6. UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.
  3. Emerging trends from the AEDC, Fact sheet on AEDC results for the 2009, 2012 and 2015 collection, https://www.aedc.gov.au/resources/detail/fact-sheet–emerging-trends-from-the-aedc
  4. Ibid
  5. Australian Children Education and Care Quality Authority, National Quality Framework, http://www.acecqa.gov.au/national-quality-framework
  6. Department of Human Services, Families Package – child care – workforce participation stream, https://www.humanservices.gov.au/corporate/budget/budget-2015-16/budget-measures/families/families-package-child-care-workforce-participation-stream
  7. Parliament of Australia, Universal access to early childhood education: A quick guide, 1 May 2014, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1314/QG/ChildhoodEducatAccess
  8. Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B., (2004). The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: final report. Institute of Education, University of London: London. https://www.ioe.ac.uk/RB_Final_Report_3-7.pdf
  9. Melhuish, E., Ereky-Stevens, K., Petrogiannis, K., Ariescu, A., Penderi, E., Rentzou, K., Talwell, A., Leseman, P., & Broekhuisen, M., (2015). A review of research on the effects of early childhood education and care (ECEC) on child development. Curriculum and Quality Analysis and Impact Review of Early Childhood Education and Care (CARE). http://ecec-care.org/fileadmin/careproject/Publications/reports/summaries/D4__1_EcecutiveSummary.pdf