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Extra year of school not a ‘transformative policy’ but just the start

Experts in the early childhood education sector have welcomed the extra year of preschool funding but warned about the need to tackle the workforce crisis in order for the policy to work.

In a joint statement earlier this month, the Victorian and NSW governments announced a free of charge extra year of school for all kids before the start of primary school.

This policy, set to start in 2025 for Victoria and 2030 for NSW, will see children of both states having the opportunity to attend five days of early learning play-based training designed to equip them with better skills for their transition to primary school.

According to Associate Professor, Early Childhood Governance from Sydney University, Marianne Fenech, this policy is “welcomed” but needs to be considered as a “first step” for the sector.

“I know it's been cast as the greatest transformation of early childhood in a generation and it's meant to be life-changing and transformative,” Fenech told Education Review.

“But it shouldn't be regarded as ’this is a transformative policy and this is all we need’ – it is welcomed but it needs to be considerate as a start.”

For years, experts and peak bodies have advocated for more support from the government in the early childhood education sector, claiming its benefits could help build a better future for the nation.

“When we have a system of quality early childhood education, that makes the life of a school teacher much easier because young children start school better off, better equipped,” Fenech said.

“We know that two years of preschool education means better NAPLAN results, less behavioural issues, and children who aren't developmentally vulnerable.

“In this case we have only one year of free preschool: having one year is better than having no provisioning, but the research tells us that two years is the way to go.

“When it's quality, early childhood education helps everybody. It helps the child, the family, the broader education sectors, and it helps our nation as a whole.”

Fenech believes that early childhood education does not start at four years old but from the moment children are born, stating the first five years of life are “critical” for brain development.

“This is why this policy is a start. Childcare should be free for all kids.”

In addition to benefiting the children, both states hope this extra year of free preschool will also benefit working families and allow parents to go back to work more easily.

The policy will offer 30 hours of preschool a week, which Fenech warned wouldn't be enough to boost the workforce participation as it represents only six hours of care a day, and parents will still be paying for the remaining hours that exceed.

“Women work more than six hours a day, so we are going to have to support greater provisioning of preschool beyond a 30-hour a week model.

“The point of the policy is that it will ‘hopefully’ increase participation in preschool, in which we don’t yet have the required workforce.

“The government needs to make an effort to increase and provide a quality workforce, not just supply it,” Fenech said.

A shortage to fix

Like their teacher counterparts, the early childhood education sector is also facing a teacher and worker shortage; crippling the remaining workforce.

In 2020, more than 90 per cent of eligible children were attending preschool in the year before starting school, according to the AIHW.

A workforce study published in 2020 found that one in three educators leave the profession the following year, while in remote and regional areas one in two educators leave the sector in the next year.

Remote and regional areas are in most need of childcare and preschool services, as 1.1 million of Australians do not have any access to a childcare centre.

“Supplying these areas is a priority. For the policy to work there needs to be an emphasis on the childcare deserts,” Fenech said.

Estimates found that Australia will need at least 6,800 qualified early childhood teachers and more than 30,000 educators as more kids are forecast to be attending preschool.

According to Fenech, the workforce shortage is already an issue for the sector and can only be overturned by making the profession more attractive.

Since 2015, enrolments in early childhood teacher education programmes have declined by 13%, Fenech said, meaning that there is a need to ensure that becoming an early childhood teacher is seen as an attractive option.

“They need the pay and the status that's commensurate with the important and complex work that they do as well as giving good working conditions that support and sustain them.”

She believes that salary and work conditions are one of the reasons why so many early childhood education teachers leave the profession.

In NSW graduates are taught education programs from birth to 12, meaning they have the opportunity to work in the school sector rather than in preschool programs, Fenech explained, which increases the shortages.

“Teachers earn up to $30,000 a year more than early childhood teachers: the salary gap is huge.”

According to Fenech, low wages in the industry can be explained by the fact that the sector is still considered a care industry predominantly undertaken by women who have this “sort of natural inclination to look after children well”.

“There is this long-standing hangover from the past that women are innately great caregivers and it's not early childhood education – it’s just childcare.

“That's the perception which is holding us back in terms of appropriate remuneration for teachers and educators.

“This completely diminishes the complexities of early childhood development and the work that teachers do with the kids,” Fenech said.

In addition to providing better working conditions and a better salary to staff, Fenech believes that the government needs to ensure that the preschool program will be of quality and led by early childhood teachers.

“We need to make sure that we're not just hot-housing children in preschool and long day care centres so that parents and particularly mothers can work - we need a highly qualified and a stable workforce.”

A bigger sector issue 

According to Fenech, one of the key problems of early childhood education in Australia is that it is “heavily marketed” as many long day care services and, in some jurisdictions like New South Wales, even preschools are delivered by for-profit providers.

The associate lecturer is calling to reform the sector where the education of children is only conducted by not-for-profit providers.

“I think to make a profit out of children is inherently unethical, and when we have a system where you can make a profit out of young children, the quality will always be compromised.”

Not-for-profit services provide the highest quality and will spend around 80% of their budget on staffing and on professional development and on working environments, Fenech said, meaning they sustain their staff and the staff don't leave.

But the issue is when you've got those profit imperatives, she said, then quality can be jeopardised, prices for parents are high, and there is a large staff turnover.

Fenech believes the sector will get better once the society “gets out of the mindset that early education is somehow different to primary and secondary education”, and will be considered as education and not just care.

“Primary and secondary schools, whether they are government schools, Catholic or independent schools, cannot make a profit that goes back into the pockets of shareholders from educating children.

“But somehow we've allowed that to happen for our youngest school children," Fenech said.

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