Monday, 3 December 2018
Private Members' Business
Early Childhood Education: Preschool and Kindergarten Funding
That this House:
(1) acknowledges that:
(a) 90 per cent of the brain develops before the age of five;
(b) nearly one in four Australian children—22 per cent—start school without the foundational skills to be successful learners; and
(c) those children who are missing out on early education are children from disadvantaged backgrounds and are the ones who would benefit most from a preschool program;
(2) agrees that:
(a) according to the Lifting our Game report prepared by early education experts for state and territory education ministers, two years of preschool is a key recommendation to achieving educational excellence in Australia; and
(b) age appropriate early learning programs have been proven to have a positive impact on children's outcomes through school;
(3) notes that:
(a) the Government has left parents and providers in limbo with its refusal to provide funding certainty;
(b) without ongoing funding to four year old preschool/kindy, providers are unable to plan ahead;
(d) the Government's lack of commitment has left us falling behind other OECD countries in early education; and
(4) calls on the Government to properly fund four year old preschool/kindy and follow Labor's commitment to provide ongoing funding to four year olds and extend this to three year olds.
I'm very pleased to be moving this motion in the House on early-learning funding. This is a critical issue, with massive impacts for our children and for the health and wellbeing of our communities and the broader economy.
Despite what some on the government benches fervently believe, where you end up in life isn't just the result of hard work; a lot of it has to do with where you start, including where you were born, your social and economic environment and the dynamics of your family life. The social determinants of life outcomes are very real. The experiences we have in our early years have a profound impact on the course our lives will take. Kids whose childhood is marred by family breakdown, poverty, domestic violence or neglect have a dramatically increased risk of long-term disadvantage. Close to one in four Australian kids start school unequipped for successful learning.
But there is a way to improve life outcomes—in fact, it's a well-known pathway, and it's called education. Education can help kids map a path out of disadvantage and give them the best chance of achieving their full potential. Ninety per cent of a child's brain development happens in the first five years, so it's not surprising that children who access quality early-childhood education go on to achieve better results throughout school.
The former Labor government's preschool program has been a great success, with more than 90 per cent of four-year-olds enrolled. But the number of three-year-olds in early childhood education is still way below the OECD average. That's why Labor has committed to extending funding to provide 15 hours of subsidised preschool for three-year-olds as well. This will create a quality two-year program to support the most important years of a child's development.
This is no trivial thing. In fact, it is the biggest investment in early childhood education in Australia's history, and it is set to help some 700,000 children. In my electorate of Newcastle alone, I'm pleased to say that close to 2,000 three-year-olds will benefit.
This plan is good for children. It's good for families managing cost-of-living pressures. And it's good for the economy. Indeed, a recent EU study found that every dollar spent on early childhood education for three-year-olds returns $4 to the economy. Other countries, like the UK, New Zealand, France, Ireland and China, understand this and have already expanded their early-childhood programs to include three-year-olds. It is time for Australia to catch up.
Regrettably, we have a government that fundamentally fails to understand the critical importance of education. It's a government that has already savagely cut funding from schools, TAFEs and universities, while backing in exorbitant tax breaks for property investors. It's a government that spends billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthy rather than investing in the future of our children.
Now it's a government that is prepared to leave parents hanging in limbo, with their failure to extend preschool funding for the four-year-olds beyond the next school year. So, while Labor has committed to funding a world-class two-year preschool program for three-year-olds and four-year-olds, this government is too busy fighting its own civil war to ensure funding for this program next year. The former education minister announced the agreement on rollover funding back in February, so why are we still here, eight months later? What's worse is that, when the officials were specifically asked during Senate estimates if the government will continue to fund preschools at the current levels, senators were simply told: 'That's a matter for government.'
The fact that this government's own department is unable to confirm whether the government will continue to support this critical investment in education, one month out from the new year, is truly appalling. The government's failure to confirm the funding demonstrates enormous disrespect for our children, for their families and for the early-childhood-education providers alike. This chaotic Morrison government needs to stop focusing on itself and get that agreement signed to guarantee preschool funding for four-year-olds. But I would also call on the government to match Labor's commitment to provide universal access to preschool for three-year-olds so we can give every Australian child the opportunity to have the very best start in life.
Labor, through this motion, want to talk about their report card on education. So let's talk about it. In 2010 they promised Australians they would build 260 childcare centres to make child care more accessible. Do you know how many they delivered? A measly 38—a clear broken promise to families. In one year alone they tried to rip out over $2.8 billion from higher education as well, claiming they were attempting to achieve a surplus. Let me tell you, you can't achieve a surplus when you're about to add hundreds of millions of dollars to the tax bill, which will in turn harm the economy and revenue coming into government coffers.
We all know that, when the Leader of the Opposition makes a promise, someone else has to pay for it, and it's not him. It's hardworking Australians who will foot the bill, though higher taxes, just like with Labor's disgusting raid on retirees' savings. In that instance, we have another half-baked policy that people will have to pay for. Labor's latest preschool policy also doesn't add up, which is a common occurrence. Labor's Early Years Quality Fund has been described as a deeply flawed and inequitable policy that was used as a front to blatantly boost union membership in the childcare sector. The PwC report on this clearly shows that Labor's Early Years Quality Fund was never going to achieve its claimed objectives.
Our government has instead guaranteed preschool funding, with an extra $440 million, while we work with states and territories to improve preschool attendance rates for disadvantaged and Indigenous children through our next funding round. Where are Labor on this issue? Despite the opposition, our government's landmark childcare reforms also came into effect this year and are delivering more support for more families and children to get access to the support and early learning they need. The coalition is providing record funding for child care and, despite the rubbish from those opposite, the coalition has guaranteed funding for four-year-old child care and child care more generally, as well as giving 348,000 children access to 15 hours of early learning per year. Over the course of the next four years, childcare funding will also grow from $8.34 billion a year to $9.88 billion a year in 2021-22, a total of $36.6 billion over the next four years. Our government's reforms to the childcare subsidy are also the most significant reforms to the early education and childcare system in 40 years. This new childcare package is providing more access to subsidised child care to more families as well as greater financial support to the families who earn the least, with subsidies of up to 85 per cent. Our new child subsidy had also driven down out-of-pocket costs for parents. For example, ABS's September CPI data saw an 11.8 per cent decrease in out-of-pocket childcare costs.
In addition to this, the Liberal-National government is fully funding the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority, at around $13.5 million a year for two years until 30 June 2020, so that it can continue to assist all governments and the sector to produce quality outcomes for children. This government is working with providers who have raised issues to address them as they arise. Around one million Australian families who are balancing work and parental responsibilities are benefitting from the package.
We are committed to providing quality and affordable child care and we are delivering on that. We will continue to negotiate for further funding and further assurances around preschool attendance rates for disadvantaged and Indigenous children through our next funding round for kinder. We are committed to quality and we are committed to affordable child care and to funding the 15 hours of kinder, giving children access to early learning. Our commitment is one I'm personally supportive of, having raised this in my maiden speech and having a three-year-old who will be going to four-year-old kinder next year.
Labor, in comparison, have made many promises before. They promised to make child care more affordable, but, by the time they left office in 2013, they'd increased childcare fees by 53 per cent—an extra $73 a week in fees for the average family; that's $3,500 a year for families. What makes anyone think they won't do it again if they get back into government?
I'm pleased to rise on this private member's motion by the member for Newcastle today. Obviously, as my colleagues in the chamber understand, education is a passion of mine, not just because of the outcomes but because of the levels of engagement in education and the translation into community development in electorates like mine, which are growing so quickly. People come from all over Australia and all over the world, many with young families. I note that the contribution the member for Dunkley just made confirmed to me the government's complete lack of understanding of the importance of education—their lack of willingness to prioritise early learning and their lack of ability to say the phrases 'early learning' or 'early education'. It has been the saddest thing for me to note in this parliament, in my five years here, that every time I hear a government member speak they cannot bring themselves to say 'child care' or 'early education'. They see this as a childcare service and completely lack understanding of the importance of education for three- and four-year-olds. This government needs to very quickly commit to funding for four-year-old preschool, early learning and 15 hours universal access beyond 2019. They seem to not understand that, without certainty, the sector cannot plan, cannot train staff and cannot act to retain staff. This causes a funding cliff or fear of a funding cliff that disrupts early education. In an area like mine, it is critical.
My local government is still involved in early education through kindergarten programs. Some are the traditional three sessions a week and others provide a long-day-care model, but, critically, with a trained and qualified kindergarten teacher in charge of those programs. It is critical in my electorate where, three years ago, up to 30 per cent of four-year-olds were not accessing education. It is critical. We have families from non-English-speaking backgrounds and families with crippling disadvantage. It is critical that those children are given an opportunity to learn through play based learning programs and develop positive and adaptive behaviours, as well as the social skills and problem-solving skills that they need once they hit a classroom. Ninety per cent of a child's learning capacity is developed in the first five years, so Labor's announcement around four-year-old kinder, which gives certainty to the sector nationwide, is absolutely critical. I call on the government to match that and put it in the budget. If it's not in the budget then it's not being planned for. It needs to be budgeted for now. Further, I call on them to match our commitment to 15 hours of universal access to three-year-old kinder. In my region, the sector needs that planning certainty into the future in order to develop and do the capital expenditure works that are required and to ensure that we have enough physical environments to make sure that kids get the opportunities. It is an incredibly important thing that we speak of today. There are 10,000 three- and four-year-olds in the electorate of Lalor—5,000 four-year-olds, as we speak. The electorate of Lalor would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Labor policy going forward and is the community that is hurt the most by this government's lack of willingness to provide the certainty for even four-year-old kindergarten and early learning. So I again call on this government: please, get your priorities right around what supports families.
I want to conclude by saying that for five years now I have stood here and I have listened to speaker after speaker of those opposite fail to mention early learning. But more, what I hear from those opposite is a lack of understanding of poverty; a lack of understanding of what it is like to live in a family that lives day to day and week to week, where any bump in the road, any unexpected bill, can throw a family into chaos. I want those opposite to think about three-year-olds and four-year-olds who find themselves living in those circumstances and how important it is for those children to have stability in their lives, and stability often provided by early learning and provided by our qualified and highly-skilled early childhood education teachers.
It is great to have the opportunity to talk about this incredibly important issue of early education. It is always entertaining to listen to privileged people trying to give each other lectures on what it is like to be poor, isn't it? It's fascinating! But I'm always happy to cop it if it leads to better child and early education. We have a friendship group for early education that is very active in this building—the member for Ballarat is my co-convener—and we have these discussions very regularly.
There is no doubt that Australia has an almost unique model of service provision, with our predominantly private early education provision. Then, of course, overlaying that, we have preschool and C&K services. Getting them to work when run by two levels of government is challenging but not impossible. We know that, for four-year-olds, we already have fairly low levels of engagement in preschool, and that needs to be improved. I recognise the former Labor government for the quality standards that they put in place, which, though challenging, have been met by the sector with an overwhelmingly positive response, and we are now seeing real changes with the nature of the curricula materials. We know that you have to start early. We have some of the best products in the world, like 3P Learning's Matheletics and Reading Eggs, providing educational opportunities for children at home to be doing the very basics in literacy and numeracy so that they get the start they need.
But let's talk about where the speedbumps are—because it is not just that one side of politics has all the problems and the other side of politics does all the hectoring; it's actually both sides of politics trying to sort out this area. The first one is privacy and data concerns, where schools can't work with early educators to identify kids at risk and start putting those services in place before these kids turn up in prep and don't know which end of the pencil to hold. We need schools to be able to visit early education centres in their areas and be able to say, 'Can I come and meet some of these children and let's work out a way of mapping it forward?' There's a massive number of services available internationally—coming out of the US predominantly—to benchmark where children are sitting, where their domains are that are weakest, and what we need to do to get them school ready. No-one is going to disagree on that; that's important.
But what is more interesting is that Australia is a unique case because of the nature of our child-care mix in this country. Predominantly, when we look at the evidence of three-year-olds having universal access to preschool, in the context of four-year-olds already not taking it up, the question is: how far are we pushing the economics moving down to three-year-olds attending preschool? The data mostly comes from Europe. It is thanks to diligent work by the OECD. When they looked at PISA results for students in primary school, they found that they were able to map back and see definitive benefits in European economies if they went to preschool—and that is quite legitimate. They had a certain number of years of preschool prior to starting school. The problem is that that data doesn't reflect itself in Australia, and there are a number of reasons that that could be the case.
We are talking about a 30 PISA point benefit to children attending preschool. It almost seems like you can't argue against it. But there is one problem: most economies don't have an extremely high acuity measure of socioeconomic status for children who are attending preschool. Australia does; we are lucky to have the ICSEA score, which uses the household's level of income, their highest level of education, indigeneity, remote and non-English speaking background to map out exactly what communities these children come from who do and don't attend preschool. There's no point getting into a detailed debate on that data, but, when you control for socioeconomics, the preschool benefit all but vanishes. There are plenty of wealthy, successful families accessing preschool and self-evidently doing better. When you come to Australia, the whole benefit of four-year-old preschool, as mapped by OECD, is a humble seven points. When they adjusted it for socioeconomics, it fell to just one point benefit. This is in the realm of no impact whatsoever doing an additional year's preschool. And the reason? Because the people who attend early education are already doing well enough at home, to the point that it actually doesn't matter if they're there or not.
The group we must focus on is the lowest quintile that doesn't attend child care in this country. In parts of Scandinavia everyone, holus-bolus, goes into early education and they're all there. But in Australia, we have the unemployed household, we have the group where no-one works, no-one intergenerationally ever has worked, and these people aren't taking up child care for their own reasons. And they won't take up preschool unless we can find a way around that.
Australia's problem is the non-working household. We are one of four countries—we're level with New Zealand, the UK and Ireland—to have the highest proportions of those in the world, and those four countries are going to get the least benefit of having universal preschool, because the kids who need to be there simply do not turn up. Now it's not a reason not to do it, but it's a reason to get four-year-olds in there first; it's a reason to acknowledge that they need to be identifying those communities and those families most at risk and finding a way to get them there. The coalition did that with 12 hours free child care—I'm glad they have—and that's the way forward: working with that lowest quintile.
I take great pleasure in rising today to speak to the motion moved by my good friend and colleague the member for Newcastle. I'm absolutely delighted also to be speaking after the member for Lalor and to be followed by the member for Lingiari, all of whom have fantastic skills in the education field and great knowledge about what's best for Australian children, particularly in terms of early childhood education.
Like the member for Newcastle and all of my other Labor colleagues, I'm supporting a proposal to extend preschool access for young children. Labor's plan, which we will be taking to the next election, is good for the children of Australia, good for the children of Macarthur, good for parents and good for the economy. I would also like to acknowledge the help, in writing this speech, of my chief of staff, Mr Brydan Toner, an ex-school captain of Nowra boys high school and, at present, doing a part-time degree in education.
It shouldn't take a paediatrician to tell the government why they should support Labor's commitment and properly fund preschool for four-year-olds. But, alas, here I am, trying to tell the government what to do. As a medical student—and it's been quite a long time since I was a medical student—I did a thesis with the then professor of paediatrics, Thomas Stapleton, at the Children's Hospital in Camperdown about early childhood brain development and literacy. Those opposite should know almost 90 per cent of a child's brain development and literacy skills develop before they reach the age of five. It's also worth noting that the importance of a child having access to a quality preschool or early childhood education is reflected in good school data now, which demonstrates how important this is. Studies have shown that children who access quality early childhood education achieve far better test results in NAPLAN testing throughout their schooling.
Shamefully, nearly 25 per cent of young Australians begin their schooling journey without having grasped those fundamental skills of literacy, which are so essential to their becoming successful learners. Indeed, I saw many of those children in my practice as a paediatrician. Unfortunately, I saw many of those children start school without adequate literacy, and then learnt not to like school, developed behavioural problems and, unfortunately, did not complete their education.
One in four children starting school with poor literacy is a shamefully high percentage of the population in a developed country like Australia. These are the children who are missing out on access to an early childhood education. They come from disadvantaged backgrounds and would benefit immensely from access to early childhood education at an early age. Access to an early childhood education is particularly vital in closing the disadvantage gap before a child starts school. The team that I am proud to be a part of heading into the next election has a plan that will see around 340,000 three-year-olds and a similar number of four-year-olds able to access preschool every year. Not only as a paediatrician but as a father and grandfather and as the member for Macarthur, I cannot comprehend the government's attitude towards education and, in particular, funding for early childhood education. Undeniably, those opposite have continually denied certainty for funding of early childhood education. In Macarthur, their failure to extend funding for four-year-olds to attend preschool beyond the next year has left 2,364 Macarthur children in limbo.
We on this side of the chamber know that one of the biggest barriers that families face in regard to accessing early childhood education is the cost. I'm determined to expand access to preschool and preschool education so parents can balance family and work and so we can reduce the cost of child care for families with children already in education. I must also say that the government's failure to provide ongoing commitment for the funding of early education isn't just bad for the families; it's also bad for business—and they love talking about business. Those opposite come in here and pretend they're the party of small business, yet the proof's in the pudding. Through the failure of the coalition to provide a commitment for ongoing funding to early childhood education providers, people have been unable to plan ahead. Again, I assure the Chamber that this is a big issue for many of the preschools in my community—small businesses which greatly contribute to Macarthur.
This is an investment in our children and in our futures. Like the member for Newcastle, I urge the government to come to the table and properly fund four-year-old, early childhood education and extend this to three-year-olds.
Can I thank the member for Macarthur for his informed comments. As someone who, unlike most of us in this place, you could regard as an expert in this field, I think we ought to take a great deal more notice of him than others do in this place. That includes the government. I want to thank the member for Newcastle and also the member for Lalor for their contributions.
I welcome this opportunity to discuss early childhood development and education. As we've heard, Labor this year announced it will introduce a new two-year national preschool and kindy program, guaranteeing around 700,000 children a year will be able to access subsidised preschool. This is the biggest-ever investment in early childhood education in Australia. For the first time, every three-year-old in Australia will be able to access 15 hours of subsidised early childhood education so they can get the best start in learning.
I want to compliment the member for Macarthur for the erudite way in which he explained the importance of this in childhood development. It seems to me that we ought to all read his thesis so we too can be informed about this issue of early brain development and learning. I say this from someone who effectively lives in a remote part of Australia but whose electorate covers 1.4 million square kilometres and 300-odd communities. A very large proportion of the people—42 per cent of that population—are Aboriginal people living in some of the most appalling circumstances in the country, who need the access that these funds will provide, hitherto not available to them because of the neglect of this government.
It's worth pointing out that, when last in government, the Labor Party put in place 38 child and family centres around the country. These were aimed at early childhood development, to look at making sure that young people got access to preschool—Families as First Teachers and a whole host of other programs. Needless to say, when Mr Abbott became the prime minister, they all went. That's an indictment, as is the government's failure to currently properly fund preschool education for four-year-olds, let alone three-year-olds. It seems to me that we have a real problem in this country if we can't, across the parliament, accept the need for addressing these issues—to deal with early childhood education—given what we know of the way in which it affects people's lives in the longer term: their capacity to acquire new information and knowledge and their capacity to learn and understand.
The member for Macarthur and I, along with a number of others in this place, have pointed out that we are advocates of the 'first thousand days' approach to early childhood development. This is an approach within Australia that has been pioneered by Professor Kerry Arabena of the University of Melbourne, and she has been instrumental in advocating, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia as well as other Indigenous populations, the adoption of a broader, holistic and cultural approach to early childhood development, including education.
What we need to understand is that there are people in this country who are working in this space and have given great thought to how to make sure that, from the time of conception—indeed, pre conception—we're working with families around the development of their young children. I want to give a shout-out to the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress in Alice Springs, which has adopted an Abecedarian model of development and growth for young kids of three and onwards, has got its own preschool and is addressing these issues we've described. It seems to me we in this place ought to be listening to the people who know. We need to make sure that every child in this country gets access to proper preschool education to set them up for life—and that's what this is about, as well as understanding the economic benefits which the member for Macarthur referred to.
We have an opportunity and we have a responsibility here. If we fail to accept the opportunity and fail our responsibility, the people who are going to suffer are the current generation of young kids and future generations, and it will be because we're too negligent and too stupid to help them realise their full potential by investing in early childhood education.