Decades of research shows that children will benefit enormously from the year of free early childhood learning announced this week in and . This is play-based learning, and parents should take comfort in extensive research that shows this is exactly what benefits kids most at that stage of their development.
We have learned that the s more rapidly in the first five years of life than at any other stage of human development. The evidence behind brain development tells us that investing early makes a real difference to children’s learning and wellbeing. It builds social and emotional skills that are the foundations for academic learning, relationships, and wellbeing in later life.
This is game-changing reform that should be celebrated. OECD countries in child wellbeing, and systems, including preschool. It feels like we are standing at a pivotal point for Australia’s children and ourselves as a nation.
Children growing up in poverty and disadvantage stand to gain the most. The (AEDC) shows us that developmental vulnerability in the poorest areas of Australia is three times that of vulnerability in the wealthiest areas. This has not changed over 12 years of data collection.
The AEDC shows that while all children benefit from attending preschool, attendance alone does not close the equity gap. Nor does the equity gap close over the course of a child’s schooling – it only widens.
It is therefore essential that making early childhood education available is not in itself enough – we need to ensure that it is high-quality and accessible, with high participation rates where it is needed most. If this can be achieved, it will give children from disadvantaged backgrounds a much better chance of an equitable start in their education and early development.
The plan will also provide economic benefits, both for families and for the community at large. A number of studies show that high quality early education, when delivered equitably (ensuring that families who are most disadvantaged receive the highest quality and access) can benefit children’s educational outcomes over the long term and their eventual contribution to the workforce.
The extra year of early childhood education will also enable parents to return to work without having to compromise the care of their children, meaning the NSW and Victorian economies will benefit from increased workforce participation.
Children will benefit too, because we know that when families are better off financially, children have much better outcomes across a range of measures.
This is compared to the current situation, where many parents in both states cannot afford childcare, and others don’t have access to it because they live in so-called where services are simply not available.
Game-changing moments of systems reform are rare. All the more so when they are driven by Labor and Liberal governments reaching across borders in partnership and collaboration. But this move shows that systems reform is possible, though there is still more to do.
The pandemic has exposed inequalities in our society, which start in pregnancy. It has also shown that real policy decisions can be made quickly and can have real, positive benefits for people. While there are clearly no silver bullets in addressing inequitable outcomes for children, this policy investment and interest in early childhood should signal the beginning of a whole stack of early childhood policy investments that really can help shape a better future for our country.
A good next step would be to implement better coordination across health and educations systems to ensure that children and families get the help they need early. And we still need further reform in the first three years of schooling.
The NSW and Victorian governments should be congratulated for their leadership in listening to expert advice and supporting the health, development and wellbeing of our children. It will help give more Australian kids the best start in life.