Early moments matter in a child’s life, more than many of us realise.
As Australia begins to emerge from the pandemic, many of us are reflecting on life in isolation, the changes we have come to enjoy, and wondering which parts of our new normal will stick as we move to recovery.
Households may not continue their love of baking or jigsaw puzzles with the same fervor, but there have been some incredible interim measures to help families that could form the foundation of a new social infrastructure with enormous benefits for all Australians, especially the most disadvantaged.
Free childcare was one of the single best decisions of the crisis. The Early Childhood Care and Relief package is an extraordinary measure that has relieved the pressure for families both financially and mentally by enabling children to continue their learning and care while parents work from home or look for work.
One of the great benefits has been that it has helped give children access to childcare by removing the barriers that have previously made it very challenging for some families.
This crisis response measure has come with a large price tag and an expiry date, but the value to children and families goes well beyond workforce participation.
Early childhood learning is a vital component in a child’s development and an important support network for family wellbeing. Early childhood centres provide a social safety net of immense importance to families, particularly if they are struggling or where children are at risk.
It prepares children for school, and provides opportunities for socialisation, as well as health screening for nutrition, immunisation, vision, speech and hearing.
Early moments matter in a child’s life, more than many of us realise. The first 1,000 days in a child’s life have a profound effect on their health, development, ability to learn - and even on their lifetime earnings. A 2019 study by the Front Project and PWC calculated participation of children in quality, early learning delivers a return on investment of 2:1 to the economy.
However, in Australia too many children are being left behind
"Early moments matter in a child’s life, more than many of us realise. The first 1,000 days in a child’s life have a profound effect on their health, development, ability to learn - and even on their lifetime earnings."
Just 15 per cent of three-year-olds in Australia attend early learning, compared to an average of 69 per cent in other developed countries. Developmental vulnerabilities including language and cognitive difficulties affect 1 in 5 Australian children starting school, with even more in areas of socio-economic disadvantage.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are half as likely to attend preschool as non-Indigenous children and are more than twice as likely to start school with developmental difficulties.
We know if children fall behind in the first five years of life, this ‘lost education’ is incredibly difficult for them to catch up.
Access to early childhood education for families, also provides many benefits for parents, whose wellbeing is critical to the wellbeing of the child.
During times of crisis, childcare provides mental health respite for parents who are under stress, it provides time for parents to seek employment or further training, it provides parenting support and resources, and a network of carers and other parents to lean on.
During times of crisis and beyond, it’s imperative we have structures in place to support our most vulnerable. This must include equal access to quality and affordable early childhood education and care for every child and every family. While this is not likely to be a free system for everyone, we shouldn’t make the mistake of reverting back without realising the opportunity to remove some of the barriers to participation for Australia’s most vulnerable children.
Already, Australia is lagging in early childhood learning, ranked below the OECD average in access, participation, affordability and investment in early childhood education and care. We cannot afford for Australian children’s learning to be further compromised.
A continuation of targeted investment towards vulnerable children in early learning would be money well spent to give all Australian children an equal start. This begins with a continuation of the current free childcare until the end of the Job Keeper period. We must ensure that disadvantaged children and struggling families are not the first to be impacted by a premature withdrawal of Government support.
We already have support mechanisms for children at risk, but the amount of red tape can make it difficult to access. UNICEF Australia strongly recommends simplifying access to the existing support schemes for children most at risk; no-cost early learning for families with a healthcare card; and an increase in the percentage of fees that are subsidised for low income households. We also believe every three and four-year-old should have access to two days of preschool per week.
We have all made great adjustments to our lives during this time and we can make COVID-19 a catalyst for positive change. Our most vulnerable should be the primary beneficiaries of this.
The cost of early childhood learning is a small price to pay for wellbeing of families and the future of our children. Every child deserves a fair chance.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph.
Stay up-to-date on UNICEF's work in Australia and around the world
27 Aug 2023
Meet Tony, a dad from Vanuatu who did all he could when his newborn twins were in crisis.
24 Aug 2023
Five ways you can support LGBTIQA+ children’s mental health
This Wear it Purple day, find out how you can support and celebrate diversity.
14 Aug 2023
Three innovative ways UNICEF is taking climate action
Three innovative ways you are ensuring children inherit a greener planet where they can reach their full potential
6 Aug 2023
Burundi: the country where young people are leading climate action
From rocket stoves to sustainable agriculture, young people are shaping futures for the next generation
4 Aug 2023
In photos: six months of rebuilding lives in Türkiye and Syria
It has been six months since the deadly earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria devastated children and families. See their journey from heartbreak to hope thanks to the ongoing support of people like you.
4 Aug 2023
Aussie artist Ken Done has spent the past 35 years as a UNICEF Ambassador
Ken Done is the kind of guy that can put a smile on anyone’s face. He’s warm, funny and a world-renowned artist, hailing from Sydney’s North Shore.
27 July 2023
Meet three Team UNICEF City2Surf superstars
Our supporters are lacing their sneakers and hitting the ground running for City2Surf in support of children worldwide.
23 July 2023
How birth certificates can unlock education for Aussie kids
Registering a birth is more important than ever.
23 July 2023
100 days of healing for the children of Sudan
As the conflict in Sudan con, UNICEF is working tirelesslessly to protect the children caught in the middle of the devastating crisis.
13 June 2023
One doctor's mission to make twice the impact
UNICEF supporter Doctor Rob Baume is calling on other doctors to join him to support children well beyond their clinics.
6 June 2023
Ukraine families face new threats after Kakhovka dam collapse
A devastating attack on the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine leaves families and children vulnerable to flooding and displacement.