Analysis

Evidence is back in fashion with Labor’s early education announcements

In recent years, it seems like evidence and research have taken back seats to platitudes about “lifters and leaners” and “the right families” in the development of early education policy.

Since 2013, universal access to preschool for 4-year-olds has been under threat every single year, with the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Governments only committing to short-term extensions.

Research is clear that high-quality preschool education amplifies learning and development.

Since 2016, there has been no Workforce Strategy for a workforce in crisis, and funding for critical professional development was unceremoniously dumped.

The evidence is clear that more educators are needed, and that turnover and retention rates are concerning.

Since 2015, the Government has advocated for – and legislated – a package of funding reforms that lowers access for vulnerable children, closes Indigenous Budget Based Funded services, adds additional red tape and administrative burdens and limits access to education for children for their parents’ roster and payslip.

Research is clear that Governments should be lowering barriers to access, not adding them and strengthening them.

After five years of facts and evidence being out of fashion, it’s tempting to be cynical about the Labor Opposition’s recent announcements on 3-year-old preschool funding and the removal of TAFE fees for 100,000 early childhood students, released under the umbrella of their National Preschool and Kindy Program.

But make no mistake, these are solid and positive policy announcements that are informed by clear and incontrovertible evidence.

The early education sector can be forgiven for not remembering what that looks like.

The move towards funding an additional year of pre-school education is well overdue in Australia. It was the key recommendation of the Lifting Our Game Report, which highlighted in stark terms how far behind Australia is in our provision of and funding for early education.

Yes, it will cost money. But early education funding is the textbook definition of a sensible investment according to Noble Laureate economist Professor James Heckman and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Labor, to their credit, have had the plan costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, and accept that a lot of the plan will depend on consultations with the States and Territories. The Government have complained about both of those aspects of the plan, but neither of those challenges preclude the major parties embarking on this important reform.

The TAFE announcement is a welcome first step for a sector workforce in crisis, with alarming recruitment and retention issues. The data is clear that we will not have anywhere near enough educators and teachers for the future needs of children.

These are facts. Labor has responded to these facts with a policy. There remains a lot more to do with the workforce. We need a comprehensive Workforce Strategy that deals with the parallel issues of professional development, students and – critically – wages. It is to be hoped that Labor have further announcements to make on these issues.

The National Preschool and Kindy Program may not be perfect, and it will not solve every issue facing the early childhood sector. But it is a plan that takes the sector seriously, actually engages with the evidence, and gives the sector hope that there may be a way forward.

The Government would do better to respond to Labor’s policies with more than “it’s a lot of money”, and to find more to say on early education than “get a job, parents”.

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