Monday, 15 March 2021
Education and Employment References Committee; Reference
I rise to speak on this reference proposed by the Chair of the Education and Employment References Committee, Senator Pratt. The reference proposes an examination of how best the Australian government should invest in early childhood education and care to achieve the very best care and development outcomes for young Australians. This reference is a critical and important opportunity for the committee to examine and recognise the central value of early childhood education to children, to families, to communities and indeed to the whole Australian economy. Really, it is long past time we examined and committed to solutions to the problems that are plaguing this sector.
There are so many questions about how we as a society support, fund and roll out quality early childhood education services in Australia today. Funding is one of the big questions. How should we best fund this critical sector? How should we best manage and deliver quality early childhood education and care? And of course one of the most important questions in how we deliver quality early childhood education and care is the workforce. How do we support a quality early childhood education workforce? Today we know that the dedicated, qualified professional workers in this sector are severely undervalued. Critically, we need to examine, as this reference proposes, the wages that we pay to our hardworking early childhood educators.
This is a hugely important sector to our community, to our society and to our economy. We know that early engagement with children and their families through early childhood education and care delivers strong outcomes for the community. There is a very well established body of evidence, which, indeed, is growing, that early engagement with children and their families delivers the best, strongest outcomes. Early childhood education and care is critical for children's social development, emotional development, language development and, indeed, cognitive development. In fact, we know that 90 per cent of a child's brain development occurs in those critical early years of zero to five years of life. And so the best outcomes are going to be delivered by a system that delivers high-quality, affordable and accessible early childhood education. We want to be able to fulfil the potential that our children have and we want to be able to lift their opportunities.
There is also, of course, a growing body of evidence about the importance of early childhood education in dealing with disadvantage. Early childhood education and care is absolutely critical for children who come from backgrounds where they need extra support, where they need extra education and care if we're going to be able to lift their opportunities as they enter school and as they become young adults in our country. Quality programs mean much greater educational attainment for children, flowing through the school years and, indeed, into adulthood. And accessibility to services is critical to delivering the full developmental benefit that can be unlocked through quality early childhood education. Improving affordability and access to early childhood education is going to benefit hundreds of thousands of Australian children and their families, and it's not just going to benefit children and families; it's going to benefit the whole economy and benefit social participation as well.
Early childhood education and care services, of course, increase the opportunities for patterns to go out and work and for them to earn. And that doesn't just affect them in their own households; it affects all of us. It affects our economic potential. We know as a country that we have a problem with the workforce participation of women and that quality, affordable, accessible early childhood education is critical to boosting the participation of women in our workforce, in our economy and, indeed, in our society.
But it is absolutely critical that parents know when they put their children into early childhood education and care that they receive the highest quality programs. That in turn relies on the workforce. It relies on the right workforce planning and asking: how do we secure a strong professional workforce into the future? It relies on the best, highest quality training for staff. And, critically, it relies on us committing to decent, respectful pay and conditions for our skilled and qualified early childhood educators.
For many years, I've been hearing from early childhood educators that the wages are just so low they can't actually afford to stay in the jobs that they love. If we want a high-quality early childhood education sector, we need to invest in the educators themselves and we need to figure out how to do that in a sustainable way. We can't continue to offer quality early childhood education in this country when about a third of educators are leaving the jobs, sector and industry they love every year because they just can't afford to stay on those low wages. Nothing in early childhood education is possible without an absolutely exceptional workforce of dedicated, committed early childhood educators. But, to deliver that workforce, we absolutely need to figure out how to deliver better wages and better conditions to those educators and better training so that they can be their very best. The low wages in the early childhood sector are absolutely at odds with that goal. They are at odds with maintaining this exceptional workforce. Early childhood educators have done absolutely everything they can to make their case to this federal government. They have campaigned for better wages for years. They have tried to raise their wages through the bargaining system. They have run work value cases. They have won equal pay cases. They have walked off the job multiple times to try to get the respect and the recognition that they deserve from this government for their important work.
Over 90 per cent of these people are women and they are qualified. They are professional. They are dedicated. They are committed to the children that they are providing education to and care for. But they are severely undervalued. They are flat out underpaid. With wages as low as $21 or $22 an hour, this absolutely critical workforce is earning around half the average wage. So, if we value this sector, if we value the contribution early childhood educators make to the sector, we have to figure out how to provide professional wages to the majority women who work in this sector and who, day in and day out, provide excellent and high-quality education services to children.
The fact that this sector is over 90 per cent women and the fact that the sector has been seen as women's work is really the key factor in why their wages are so low today. Fixing affordability for families is absolutely critical, but it's only half the problem that we face in the sector today. We absolutely need to improve the pay and the working conditions for educators themselves. So the future of early childhood education and, indeed, our whole education system has to include a plan about how we finally ensure that those educators are paid what they are worth—educators like Kerry, who has been in the sector for over 30 years. She is an educator who finds it difficult to afford to stay in the job that she loves. She's been in the sector for over 30 years but she, as a senior educator, earns only around half the average wage. She can't afford to buy a house. She rents. She can't imagine when she'll be able to retire. She's in her 50s and, because of the low wages she has been on for over 30 years, she can't see when she'll be able to retire.
It is extraordinary that we organise such a critical sector like the early childhood education sector on the basis of low wages. It's extraordinary that the federal government has continued to look at early childhood education as basically babysitting. On the league table of OECD expenditure on this sector, we as a country are nowhere near the top. We do not invest in this sector at the same rate as other countries which have much better outcomes.
As early childhood educators say, while they absolutely love their jobs, love doesn't pay the mortgage or the rent. While they love working with children and are dedicated and committed to doing that, love doesn't put food on the table. We need a sustainable early childhood education sector—one that recognises in pay packets the professionalism of educators and one with affordable and accessible education that supports parents to return to work. We need a sustainable early childhood education sector that provides the highest quality early childhood education and care that invests in our future generations. We shouldn't be a country that spends well below the OECD average on this critical sector. We should absolutely invest in it.
We need a federal government that values early childhood educators—that values them in their pay packets, that values their professionalism and that respects and rewards them. We need a federal government that will invest in and develop a sustainable quality early childhood education system. For all of those reasons I think this reference—to examine how we can best invest in early childhood education and care to achieve the very best care and development outcomes for young Australians, to examine the funding, to examine the management and delivery of services and, critically, to assess the wages that we pay our hardworking early educators—is absolutely critical. This reference is critical. This investigation is critical. I commend this reference to the Senate.