Opinion

‘I have never understood the thinking that education begins at five’: Changing the conversation about the early years

Despite a lot of progress over the last few decades, the Australian early education sector still faces a number of difficult and complex challenges. But I believe all of our challenges are linked, and emanate from our status and standing within our national Government – and as a consequence, the general community.

The government views early childhood as a workplace solution for ensuring the return of women to the workforce. They focus on funding fee relief for working families, and as a redemptive program for four-year-old children to ensure a good start to school.

Nowhere in the discourse around the provision of early childhood programs is the message that it is the right of every child and with assured access.

The community view of “childcare”

‘Childcare’ is an option for getting women into the taxpaying workforce. It is not because women should be able to choose to remain in the workforce or something that would benefit children. The focus is to get women into the workforce to raise tax revenue. If the national government completely funded early childhood education and not just fee relief and preschool program funding, just as they do schools, the community might not be divided about who is responsible for the education of young children.

As a result of this commonly held community view of ‘childcare’, for those of us who work in the sector, we have no status or standing within government or the community. We are simply replicating women’s work in formal settings. We lack an identity that we would be comfortable with.

The New South Wales Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonjhelm confirmed this point when he stated in a recent interview that we are simply ‘nose wipers and our job is to stop children from killing each other’. The only reason he opposed the new Child Care Package reforms was to save taxpayer money. He has consistently proposed removing regulations and let providers just focus on making money. It was clear his opposition to the changes was not about the fact that it would disadvantage many children and families.

Read any newspaper article about the cost of early childhood education, and then read the comments from the public that respond to the article. You soon gain the feeling that the community firmly believes it is the responsibility of the family to pay the costs of ‘childcare’.

They are also of the opinion that women should stay at home to look after their children. It seems taxpayers are not happy that the government subsidises families for their ‘childcare’ costs.

I am always shocked at the strength of the comments, particularly in this day and age. The commonly-held view that a woman’s place is in the home is equally as shocking. I know that the comments are written by people who have time on their hands and the motivation to respond, but it is a strong opinion nevertheless, and indicative of the general community beliefs and strong opinions.

The role of Government

There are very few members of the community who are aware that early childhood education is important, necessary, or even exists. After all, it is ‘childcare’ the Government talks about, not early childhood education. In the community’s understanding, early childhood education is only for the three- and four-year old children so they have a better transition to the school experience. Funding this age group and the preschool sector seems to be a winning political move, one the taxpayer approves of.

Some State Governments do well, in some ways, by the early childhood sector. Victoria and South Australia have some positive policies regarding professional development and additional preschool funding. but sadly they don’t do so well in the services for children from birth to five.

As for infants and toddlers, they do not receive as much attention. It is a rare infants and toddler program that is led by an early childhood teacher. According to recent research, infants and toddlers receive less attention in our National Quality Framework than preschoolers. I find this to be an anathema as we are all aware of the body of research about the importance of the first three years of life in regards to children’s development.

I really believe there would be a positive flow-on effect from having a national government that was willing to shoulder the responsibility of providing early childhood education as a right for every child and family, just as they do for ‘post’ early childhood education. I have never understood the thinking that education begins at five.

The sector’s status would then align with schools, raising awareness within the community about the importance of the early years. Salaries and working conditions, as a consequence, would have to align with the school sector conditions. Staffing requirements would also have to align, with each early childhood classroom led by a teacher supported by professional staff.

Raising the status and standing of early childhood education might make the sector a more attractive workplace choice for graduate ECTs. Currently ECTs, regardless of their choice of workplace, are just as responsible for their professional development and accreditation as their school colleagues. However our workplace conditions in birth-five services are not as supportive or attractive as preschool or school. How long will it be before this inequality is addressed?

Raising the profile of teaching in early childhood

If the government promoted early childhood education it would change how it was viewed in the community. With better working conditions, we would not have the staffing issues we currently have, or the inability to attract good teachers. We could follow the experience of the Finnish education system to make it desirable to become a teacher by limiting the intake into the courses.

It is not easy to become a teacher in Finland. A decision was made that only the brightest and the best are selected to become teachers. Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator, author, policy advisor, researcher and now a Professor at the University of New South Wales Gonski Institute of Education, revealed at a recent conference in Sydney that he was not admitted on his first application to enrol into the teaching course.

Fortunately he persisted and today is a role model of a knowledgeable and committed teacher and advocate for equality of access to quality education. Pasi equates equality as the right of each child to access quality education.

We need knowledgeable, committed teachers and professional staff to be attracted to the sector. We need them to stay in the sector, build their careers and become specialists that have the respect of government and the community.

We have to lose our ‘victim’ mentality and push back. It is hard to keep abreast of the political changes that take place at the national and state and local council levels, but it is important for all early childhood professionals to be informed in order to be able to advocate when important issues arise.

Having a stronger sector voice

I am surprised there has not been a revolution about the ending of funding for National Quality Agenda by the Australian Government. No doubt people are tired and lack the energy to protest, but my feeling is we feel powerless and changes happen regardless of what opinion we may express at our ‘consultation sessions’ .

These sessions are really information sessions with a set agenda about the changes that are about to take place. We all need to seek a place at the table to engage in the discussions and not just leave it up to the sector representatives to speak on our behalf. We do have a voice and we need to find it and quickly, before our accreditation system is dismantled and state and territory governments take back the responsibility for legislating for early childhood education provision.

At times I do wish for voices such as The Early Education Show and the Framework, reports like Lifting Our Game by Deborah Brennan and Susan Pascoe; and organisations like the Mitchell Institute, to be obligatory reading by early childhood staff members and families. As a sector we have to be better informed about our work (not just about who has a good idea for a mother’s day activity).

We should share this critically important information with our families. I have always found families to be quite interested and surprised at the connection early childhood education has to the politics of the day and it does help them to make choices when they vote!

The next steps

The issues that face the early childhood sector are complex. The biggest challenge is having a well informed sector ready and willing to advocate fiercely for the much-needed change in our government’s thinking about early childhood education funding and provision.

We need a government prepared to start a radical overhaul of the sector and take responsibility for funding the sector now and into the future.

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