Every parent who has struggled to find a place at a local childcare centre knows and appreciates how important early learning is for their child and family. Yet Australia’s current early learning system is prohibitively expensive, inconsistent and according to the Thrive by Five campaign, in desperate need of reform to make it universally accessible. You can help by signing the petition at thrivebyfive.org.au/mamamia
Thrive by Five CEO Jay Weatherill AO, believes that this major overhaul of Australia’s early learning system is essential when you consider what is at stake.
“A child’s brain is 90 percent of the size of an adult’s by age five,” he says.
“For too long we have thought of early learning and childcare centres as equivalent to child-minding, without acknowledging how critical the first five years are for life-long learning and wellbeing.
“I can see why many primary school teachers say that by the time a child comes through the school gates for the first time, their path is already set.
“Early learning is arguably as important as school, which is why we are campaigning for a total reform of the sector. We need a high quality, accessible and universal learning system that will not only benefit the under-fives, but their educators, families and the broader economy.”
The cost of childcare in Australia has risen faster than the cost of housing or electricity and as mothers are more likely to drop out of the workforce because of this increased cost, it is no surprise that Sydney-based mum-of-two Suzy* also believes the system requires reform.
“I am currently on maternity leave with my four-month baby, but prior to that I was working part-time in PR to be around for my eldest daughter,” Suzy says.
“It was not financially viable for me to return to work full time first time round and it won’t be once this period of maternity leave ends either. I feel frustrated and concerned about the fact my superannuation is hardly being added to.”
Aside from the high cost of childcare in Sydney, Suzy believes the government is not looking at the big picture when it comes to the current system.
“Not only are the costs exorbitant, but the government is being incredibly short-sighted in not providing more funding for a child’s crucial first five years. If the system was better funded, more women would be working and paying taxes.
“And not only that, I simply don’t understand where the fees are going. The money is certainly not going back to parents and the educators are not paid anywhere near enough!”
Long-term benefits for all
The need to look more broadly at the importance of our early childhood system stems from research that proves investment in quality, affordable childcare not only benefits the economy by enabling more parents to return to the workforce, but the long-term health and wellbeing of our children.
According to Thrive by Five, children who accessed some early learning were less likely to be developmentally vulnerable compared to those who didn’t (19.8 percent vs 39.8 percent).
Not only that but high quality early learning is known to benefit children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have been found to have greater cognitive and behavioural development deficits at school entry.
“We know so much more now than we did 30 years ago about how our brains develop and we understand that negative experiences suffered by very young children are damaging to their life course,” Jay says.
As he explains, if we don’t invest more in providing quality early learning for our kids, as a nation we end up bearing the burden later on.
“A lack of early intervention in a child’s development is not only detrimental to the child, their family and society, but it actually costs the Australian taxpayer about $15.2 billion each year through higher costs later in the education, child protection, health, social welfare and justice systems.”
“Conversely, it is crucial that we consider how high-quality experiences in an early learning environment can shape a child’s executive function in a really positive way and happy, engaged kids mean happier families and a healthier society as a whole.”
Early learning inspirations
As a father of two teenage daughters and as the former Premier of South Australia and Minster for Early Childhood Development, Jay was inspired by two early childhood experts, Fraser Mustard and Carla Rinaldi of Reggio Children.
“Fraser was a Canadian neuroscientist and Carla an early childhood visionary. They both understood that a child was a citizen with the right to learn from the very earliest years.
“My connection and friendship with them lead me to volunteer for a number of early childhood charities before taking on the role of CEO at Thrive by Five; a cause I am incredibly passionate about.”
The Reggio Emilia approach is a child-centred philosophy named after the place it began in Italy after World War II.
“When deciding how to rebuild their communities, many of the local villagers in the area of Reggio Emilia decided to put schools and early learning at the heart of their growth,” Jay says.
“The child was at the centre and the importance of their core relationships and learning environment was key. This child-centric approach still resonates and is clearly supported by neuroscience and current research; kids need powerful connections and engaging play in order to thrive.”
Building relationships and consistency
While all children need a strong bond with their parent or primary care giver, this key relationship can be supported and enhanced by high quality early learning and connections with educators.
“I know this from experience with my own girls and I remember if one particular educator was absent at her childcare centre, it made dropping off my daughter very difficult. There were tears,” Jay says.
Where high quality early learning is vital for brain development and confidence, Jay explains that a low quality childcare centre can have a negative impact.
“One of the reasons we want to reform the whole system is that while quality early learning gives our children the very best start in life, low quality childcare can do the opposite and take a child backwards. Approximately 16 percent of Australia’s childcare centres don’t currently meet early learning quality standards.
“A child’s home life might already be chaotic so if they have a difficult time at a noisy or chaotic centre with no continuity of care with a trusted educator, this can add to their stress levels.
“One way we can ensure universal high quality early learning is to urgently review how we support our educators for the essential work that they do. They deserve better wages, conditions and professional development.”
Supporting our educators
Early educators remain among the lowest paid workers in Australia despite having academic qualifications and delivering a critical service.
“The work educators do is complex and important yet staff retention is a big issue,” Jay says.
“As a result of low pay, staff turnover is high at about 30 percent and this disrupts the important relationships between a child and their educator, which in turn impacts on quality and parent confidence in the system.”
Jay says that when you consider how much has changed for teachers and nurses in the last few decades, it possible to see the pathway to reform.
Mum-of-twins and primary school teacher Nicole felt relieved of financial pressure when shortly after the first national lockdown on 6 April 2020, child care was made fee-free in Australia.
“With my twins both in daycare three days per week, we pay out a lot of money on a weekly basis, Nicole says.
“During the pandemic fee-free period however, I was able to add an extra day of work because I enjoy working and we could afford for me to do so.”
“Now that we are back to normal again, there’s a ‘sweet spot’ we need to stick to which means I can only work three days per week otherwise it becomes financially pointless and I end up working more, for hardly any money.
“It frustrates me that there is no discount or adjustment for having multiples as I obviously didn’t plan on having twins! There have been times I have questioned if it is worth working at all, but I love my job and I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mum.”
Gender equality and economic growth
Reforming Australia’s out-dated childcare funding arrangements will create lifelong economic advantages for women, enabling mums like Nicole and Suzy to work more hours if they wish.
“As research clearly shows it is the mothers who are most likely to switch to part time work to buffer the cost of childcare - 37 percent of mums against just five percent of dads,” Jay says.
“Gender equality will likely never be achieved without access to universal, high quality early learning.”
The August 2020 Grattan report calculated that investing $5 billion more per annum into the child care sector will grow GDP by $11 billion annually through greater workforce participation and deliver $150,000 in higher lifetime earnings for the typical Australian mother.
Aside from the huge economic reasons, women feeling able to return to the workforce has many other benefits.
“Kids want their parents to be happy and fulfilled and if mum wishes to work more for whatever reason, this is good for children to see,” Jay says.
As more countries around the world begin to see the benefits that come with reforming the early childhood sector, Jay believes is only a matter of time before Australia must follow.
“There is a lot of work yet to be done and we first need to get people to understand and recognise there is a problem with the existing system and then start building our campaign from there.
“In terms of how a new universal system would work, I imagine a system similar to that of Medicare, but a good first step would be to have a commitment from the federal government for funding in the May 2021 budget.”
As more Australian women are finding their voices, Jay believes that the mood of the nation shows our governments are ready to listen and learn.
Now is the time for change
“In the current climate, it is harder for politicians to ignore women and children and the issues that are important to them.
“This is the right time to work together to reform an outdated early learning system that benefits no one.
“We must demand action and make real change happen and the more people who join Thrive by Five in our campaign by signing our petition, the more powerful we will be.”
Thrive by Five is an initiative of Minderoo Foundation that is campaigning to make our early learning and childcare system high quality, universally accessible and affordable. We believe this to be the most significant educational, social and economic reform of our era. You can help drive change, sign the petition here: thrivebyfive.org.au/mamamia
*name has been changed for privacy reasons