Thursday, 30 October 2014
Early Childhood Education
What started in this place as a lone voice calling for us to focus on zero- to five-year-old children and battle against vulnerability is now growing in momentum. This year we formed the Parliamentary Friends of Early Childhood group, which identifies the important role of policy in the zero to five space. Why are we doing it? Because society's long-term economic benefit lies in our ability to maximise social development, and from social development comes, obviously, physical and economic capital.
We need all hands on deck in a high-wage, developed economy to be able to compete against lower-wage economies and to make sure that we can preserve the quality of life that we have in this country. We need all hands on deck and, figuratively speaking, all minds on deck. In a nation where we produce around 150,000 Australians every year without the skills to enter the workforce, we need to be looking with laser-like focus at the zero to five space.
I recognise that at the moment we choose a different path. At the moment we choose areas like pre-employment training, increasing school attendance, increasing incarceration capacity and working on adult literacy, but it is all too late and way too expensive. We need, as other developed economies need, to not just look at how much money we spend on 'parent care', where we put children somewhere while we can go to work, but look genuinely and intensively at childhood education from the age of 18 months.
Some children never go to school; they are homeschooled in highly capable families. The rest of us send our children to school at the age of six and, increasingly, to preschool at five. But there are 20 per cent of Australians with vulnerable children who need some form of educational intervention earlier than this chosen figure of five years of age. A biopsychosocial check of every child in the AEDI at the age of five is an important improvement by the previous, Labor government on what we were doing prior to that. But, honestly, we know now that when children are 18 months of age we need to be looking for vulnerability and to support parents in their complex lives where they are unable to give their children what you and I take for granted.
This is not about the state taking over. This is about recognising that, for every welfare dependent Australian, we face a $3½ million bill in health, pensions, incarceration, public housing and income replacement costs—$3½ million per person. The Minderoo Foundation and the Challis model in WA have shone a light on what can be achieved in outer metropolitan Australia. Teams work in a multidisciplinary fashion to identify kids struggling early and give them the top-up that they need in what is called a light-touch intervention. Let us be honest: when these kids are born, there is only a five per cent rate of disadvantage in this country, a five per cent rate of vulnerability. What do we do to our children to get it to 27 per cent in those following five years? It is what we are not doing as a community for those first five years of life.
We need to make this a welcoming additional service that people want to opt-in to. We have $30 billion of childcare money being spent in the forward estimates but, increasingly, the increase in quality of training of staff is only the first step. Ultimately it is about what we can do to help these families who need that help most. Some of the most needy families never consider child care. I am sorry; it is not good enough to leave your child with grandma or extended family if by the time they get to school they do not know how to hold a pencil or which end is the front of a book. These children will start off on a 12-year school career of basically hiding their vulnerability through poor behaviour, and that is what rips apart classrooms. It makes it impossible to teach 28 children when three of them are throwing furniture through the windows or abdicating education the minute the parent drops them off.
This is such an important issue. The Minderoo Foundation today in Armadale in Western Australia has Peter Collier, one of their senior ministers, visiting and doing a case study analysis of the great work they do in Challis. Challis will not work everywhere. It will not work in remote Australia where we do not have the actual capacity to get those people on the ground for long enough.
The future is upskilling our childcare workforce. This has been agreed by both sides of politics as a really important area and the professional development fund this week is sending out up to $50,000 to every childcare centre that applied. We can do better in early intervention and we can make the zero-to-five space a great success in the OECD table rather than where it lies at the moment.