Australia lagging behind rest of the developed world on early-childhood education

UNSW Professor Deborah Brennan and Executive Director Sam Crosby for The Sydney Morning Herald. 

All over the developed world, a revolution has occurred in the way childcare services are viewed: from mere child minding to vital early-childhood education.
Globally, early-childhood education and care are seen as critical not just in promoting workforce participation but in creating foundations for learning, boosting the capacity of the rising generation to contribute to national prosperity and creating happy lives for the children of today.
Britain, to take just one example, has dramatically accelerated its reform of childcare since the 1990s. Now 15 hours of free early childhood education a week is available to all three-year-old and four-year-old children, and to the most disadvantaged 40 per cent of two-year-olds.
The main British political parties agree about the importance of free hours – indeed, eligibility has been extended under Labour and Conservative administrations. Both recognise the benefits of children being able to access services regardless of their parents’ income or labour force participation.
New Zealand, Germany, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland all have similarly-oriented approaches.
Yet Australia, somehow, missed the memo.
Here, childcare policy is still seen as something of a regrettable necessity, required mainly to get women back into the workforce.
Reflecting a philosophy that is decades out of date, the Abbott government’s package is focused on boosting childcare subsidies for mothers who go back to work.
Funding is to be secured by reducing access to Family Tax Benefits, denying childcare subsidies to children whose parents do not work a certain number of hours per fortnight, and cutting access to the government-funded paid parental leave scheme.
The fact the government has made additional funding for childcare conditional on the Senate passing its cuts to paid parental leave and Family Tax Benefits speaks volumes. In most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations such a zero-sum game would make no sense, because early childhood education is viewed as a goal in and of itself.
But while the Abbott government’s trade-off approach will undoubtedly provide an enhanced benefit to certain sections of the community – especially families with secure, regular employment – critical flaws in the design mean the overall effect is a backward step for many.
A complex, bureaucratic, three-tier activity test will now determine parents’ eligibility for subsidies, meaning they won’t know from week to week how much, if anything, they will receive.
This test introduces serious risks to families that have insecure or casual jobs. It effectively unpicks two decades of policy evolution by either excluding the most disadvantaged children or forcing their parents to apply for stigmatising and questionable “safety net” provisions.
In fact, the government’s only nod to workers with irregular hours is the nanny pilot program, which is similarly retrograde.
Nannies under the pilot will not have to meet the National Quality Framework standard, which is applied to the rest of the childcare sector. Instead, all they will need is an ID, a working with children check, and a first aid certificate. By setting the bar so low, this program effectively abandons the policy goal of transitioning childcare into an early-education service.
Yet to point the finger solely at the current government would be unfair, because both main parties have become cautious and unimaginative in this crucial policy area.
The importance of free preschool, for example, was a core reform goal in the Whitlam-era, but neither side of federal politics has mentioned it since.  The current policy goal of “universal access” is quite different from free provision.
It is no surprise that such a blinkered approach has led to Australian female workforce participation rates lagging well behind that of most other OECD nations. The countries with the highest female workforce participation are those that provide high-quality, low-cost early care and education as an entitlement of all children.
While Australia joined other G20 nations this year in committing to reduce the gap in participation rates between men and women by 25 per cent by 2025, such a goal is out of reach if we continue with the current low-ambition approach to childcare. On current projections, even by 2055 Australia would not have narrowed the participation gap by more than 10 per cent.
If we are truly serious about re-energising this vital area of public policy we need to broaden our perspective beyond workforce participation.
We need a more holistic discussion about expanding and improving early-childhood education opportunities, developing clear links to paid parental leave, and promoting genuinely flexible employment. Such measures would help position Australia as a prosperous, productive and happy society into the future.
At the moment it’s as if our main parties are looking at an iPhone and seeing a paperweight. Yes, it can perform one function adequately, but with a bit more imagination there is huge potential to be unlocked.

UNSW Professor Deborah Brennan led the Brennan Report in 2013 into NSW preschools. Sam Crosby is executive director of the McKell Institute.