As a family trying to enter Australia’s early childhood education system, our recent experience has been stressful and time intensive.

Just several months from my return to work, we remain unsure of where and when our daughter will start her formal education – especially now with news this week that our preferred centre – one recognised for providing outstanding education – is facing an uncertain future and potential privatisation.

Our situation, though, is not unique.

Every family we know has had to navigate the complex patchwork of services, supports and information that is our early childhood education system; having to hustle and advocate for their child in order to secure a placement.

It all started when, at just 10 weeks pregnant, I was told by an obstetrician that we were “running late” to investigate early childhood centres. Competition for placements in Sydney is especially fierce and her advice was “find a centre that 'feels' right”.

So began our journey of trying to understand and navigate Australia’s system of pre-primary education. We got to work, researching long day care, family day care, preschool and occasional childcare – all services that cater for children between birth and school-age, collectively known as ‘early childhood education and care’ or pre-primary education.
 
"Far from being an issue for individual
families alone therefore, a nation’s approach
to early childhood education has
widespread and long-term social and
economic ramifications; for better or worse
."  
Like all parents, our driving motivation was, and is, to ensure a quality education and caring environment for our child. As for all children, between 85–90 per cent of our daughter’s brain development will occur before she’s five, and this precious window of opportunity will lay the foundations of learning for her life.

But the benefits of participation in quality pre-primary education will go well beyond her alone. When children attend pre-primary education, it makes the entire education system more effective and efficient – through increasing school readiness and leading to higher achievement and commitment to school. Providing quality pre-primary education is also an effective strategy for countries to promote economic growth – a fact more relevant now than ever before.

Far from being an issue for individual families alone therefore, a nation’s approach to early childhood education has widespread and long-term social and economic ramifications; for better or worse. 
 
"Every family we know has had to navigate the complex patchwork of services, supports and information that is our early childhood education system" © UNICEF/UNI319518/Veska
And so, a few months into our search, we found that special place. When we walked in the educators were completely focused on the little humans in their care; seamlessly singing, comforting, teaching, cleaning, story-telling and playing. The children were engaged and happy. It was everything we could wish for our child. The centre was Tigger’s Honeypot, run by the University of NSW Early Years.

Our feeling was vindicated when, earlier this year, Tigger’s Honeypot was rated the best early childhood centre in South East Sydney based on the National Quality Framework.

I was shocked then to learn this month that UNSW would close one of its early childhood centres and potentially privatise the others, including Tigger’s Honeypot. Undoubtedly, the huge loss of international student revenue has contributed to this sad situation. But here we have a centre that has been independently assessed as having an outstanding approach to children’s education. Instead of being studied and modelled, a best performing centre is facing an uncertain future.

How can that be the case?  

What many may not know is that families, educators, service providers, experts, civil society organisations and unions have been calling for reforms to our approach to early childhood education for years. Beyond our family’s quite typical experience of confusion and uncertainty, a range of serious issues emerge once you scratch the surface; affordability of services; providers yet to meet quality standards; an underpaid workforce; comparatively low rates of participation; and lacking investment in services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families.

And, as the situation at the UNSW Early Years centres demonstrates, quality service providers – of which there are many – face looming financial strain due to COVID-19 and its far-reaching implications.

While the Government’s Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package has provided temporary financial relief for families, more is needed to ensure the sustainability and suitability of the early childhood education sector long-term.
 
"Far from being an issue for individual families alone therefore, a nation’s approach to early childhood education has widespread and long-term social and economic ramifications; for better or worse. " © UNICEF/UNI332465/Bajornas
Uncertain times are ahead of us as we seek to rebuild from this pandemic. But one thing is clear – we need clever, curious, compassionate and resilient human beings to navigate an increasing complex world, and to secure our continued peace and prosperity. 

We need, then, as a society, to reimagine and rebuild an early childhood education system toward this objective. And our common starting point must be the premise that education is a universal right of every child – including from birth through to school. We must change the perception of early childhood education as “childcare” as a service for working parents; a tool to enable workforce participation – although undeniably it has such a benefit. Instead, we must aspire to create a modern, universal system of quality, inclusive and accessible early childhood education for every child; and we can start by removing barriers to participation for the most vulnerable families.

There is reason to believe we are up to this challenge. In recent months, the National Cabinet and Australian Governments have joined in a spirit of cooperation and leadership, making decisions based on the best available expert advice. It is in that same spirit that our Governments must now build a sustainable early childhood education system that is fit for purpose.

In 2020, no family in Australia should have to hustle to secure quality and affordable education for their child. All families should rest in the knowledge that their child will have access to expert teachers and quality programming to set them up for life – for their own sake, and Australia’s.

Comments