The rapid social and economic transformations occurring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are highlighting the vital role that traditionally undervalued sectors and workers play in driving our economy and ensuring the wellbeing of our families and communities. These sectors are what the Prime Minister described today as critical to the economy, even if they are not the immediately obvious ones.
When announcing the latest rounds of government initiatives to support industries during the current pandemic, the Prime Minister reiterated the importance of early childhood education, noting that it is, and always will be, critical to our economy.
Early childhood professionals have long argued, and research has proven, that investments in early learning deliver a double dividend – driving prosperity by enabling workforce participation now, while simultaneously educating and equipping the workforce of the future.
Investing in quality early childhood education is one of the smartest investments government can make. Not only is early learning critical for children’s development, it has been shown to deliver two dollars back to the Australian economy for every dollar invested.
Yet it is striking that up to now, early childhood education has not traditionally been considered a national priority. In a 2018 study from the Australian Institute of Company Directors, fewer than one per cent of company directors identified childcare as a national priority. Despite delivering education to over 850,000 children each year, early childhood education and care has not been given the same value as schools or universities, and its teachers and educators are not paid a commensurate salary.
This crisis is highlighting just how essential a strong early childhood education system is – for children’s learning and relationships, for families who need to work, and for our economy. Many businesses are rapidly adopting new ways of working to keep their staff employed and operations continuing. As organisations pivot to operate from their employees’ homes, children are making their presence felt on Zoom and video calls. Suddenly the critical link between early learning and business output is more visible.
Many parents are struggling to balance work and parenting and are needing to shift to part-time hours or work at non-standard times, and companies are rethinking business continuity plans in response. Employers are learning in real-time how critical early childhood education is for the availability and productivity of their workforce.
When we emerge from isolation and return to the office, we will need the early childhood education system to be ready. Yet there has been significant uncertainty as to whether those vital services will be there in a few months’ time. If they are not, it will take some time to re-establish facilities and workforces that meet the high standards and regulations that ensure high quality education and care.
Last year, over a million families relied on early childhood education or out-of-school-hours care. These families rely on this for children’s education and care and for parents to work and contribute to their communities. Yet because we haven’t traditionally valued or funded early learning in the same way as schools or universities, their survival has not been guaranteed during this crisis. Many early learning services have desperately been trying to cobble together enough money from different subsidies as their funding from attendance dramatically drops.
Unlike schools and other essential services like public transport, the funding model for early learning services only provides funding to centres when children are attending. Right now, many families who are facing job losses or income uncertainty are taking children out of their usual centres to save money.
Over the last few weeks, with no base funding to cover core costs such as rent, more than 15,000 local centres with 150,000 teachers and educators have been worrying about their livelihood in a way that school teachers have not.
Providers have been fighting to ensure that their centre will still be there after hibernation in a way that school principals have not had to. Many parents are attempting to continue to pay fees to keep their place, but are scared their centre won’t be there when they need it.
This crisis is exacerbating known problems – a funding model that does not provide stable or adequate funding for a critical part of the education system and a key enabler of economic activity, and a lack of support for early childhood teachers and educators who are themselves essential workers. The Federal Government has also realised that the current funding structure has not served children and the community in this crisis. They have announced that it will be temporarily suspended next week, and families will be able to access stable, free education and care for their children during this time of heightened instability.
As parents across the country are trying to juggle working from home with caring for, educating and supporting young children, employers are seeing evidence that their businesses can only operate at their best if a quality early childhood education and care system continues to support them.
While this change will be time-limited to reflect the impact of COVID-19, it is important we learn this lesson from the crisis and work to ensure long term stable funding to early childhood education in the future.