This report from the Carmichael Centre argues that Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services should be treated as a strategic industry of national importance – not just a ‘market’, and not just a ‘cost’ item on government budgets.
Building a stronger, more accessible, and high-quality ECEC system is not just a top-ranking social priority for several reasons:
- The ECEC sector supports hundreds of thousands of jobs.
- It directly creates billions of dollars of value-added in the Australian economy.
- It generates further demand for other sectors – both upstream, in its own supply chain, and downstream in consumer goods and services industries that depend on the buying power of ECEC workers.
- It facilitates work and production throughout the rest of Australia’s economy, by allowing parents to work – although that goal would be much better achieved if Australia had a more comprehensive, universal, and public ECEC system.
- ECEC enhances the long-term potential of Australia’s economy, and all of society, by providing young children with high-quality education opportunities – that are proven to expand their lifetime learning, employment, and income outcomes, and enrich their families and communities.
Australia’s current market-based system for ECEC funding and service provision is incapable of meeting the needs of parents, families, and the broader economy. A drift to the market-based provision of ECEC services has undermined public provision in Australia and diminished the quality of service and the conditions under which it is delivered.
From this crisis-ridden starting point, the staff recruitment and retention challenge in ECEC will become much worse, if in fact Australia were to make a long-term commitment to expand ECEC provision to adequately meet the needs of working parents (and the entire economy).
Much public debate over the viability of expanded ECEC, putting Australia on a par with other leading industrial nations, has focused on the fiscal dimensions of that undertaking: how would we pay for it?
If Australia is going to expand its ECEC system in line with the needs of working parents and employers, increasing funding to the Nordic-level average for ECEC must be considered, and ramping up high-quality vocational education for ECEC workers must be an immediate and highest-order priority to meet the workforce needs of expanded ECEC coverage.
A long-term commitment to improved funding and service delivery, ideally aimed at matching Nordic-level coverage and quality benchmarks, would require a larger, better-trained, better-supported, and better-compensated workforce. A pro-active strategy for sustainable workforce development should be developed and implemented with input from all stakeholders, including ECEC providers, unions, VET institutions (particularly TAFEs), and government.
The best possible education and care to Australian preschool-aged children should also be provided by the most highly trained and experienced workers – employed in delivering a public or not-for-profit service, and well-trained in public vocational education delivered through the TAFEs.
In this sense, developing a universal public ECEC system is a natural analogue to developing a universal public VET system: building a world-class public ECEC system, staffed with top-notch graduates from public TAFEs, provides a dual source of economic and social benefit.
Meeting the goals of high-quality ECEC services thus means recognising that the full and proper funding of Australia’s state- and territory-based TAFE systems must be an essential component of post-pandemic economic reconstruction.
An active industry policy for ECEC will set the direction for the de-marketisation of ECEC services, with higher levels of government funding facilitating a vastly expanded system of ECEC in Australia.
A vital prerequisite in this effort is establishing a stable, professional, well-supported ECEC workforce, by providing extensive education and training of ECEC workers, and their entry to secure, well-paid career pathways. This can only be achieved by fully funding the training and development of a regular pipeline of trained ECEC workers, led first and foremost by greater investment in publicly funded, TAFE-delivered education and skills, new mandates for workforce qualifications and staffing levels, and health and wellbeing quality frameworks that neutralise cost-competitive approaches to delivering ECEC services.