23/04/2021 - 08:00

Early start for lessons in education

23/04/2021 - 08:00

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It’s possible fixing early childhood education could become Australia’s next great economic reform.

Early start for lessons in education
Jay Weatherill was premier of South Australia between 2011 and 2018. Photo: Ben Horgan

Jay Weatherill, the softly spoken former premier of South Australia, isn’t known for his dramatic flair, yet that did not stop him making some bold assertions during his National Press Club address in February.

Appearing alongside Nicola Forrest to spruik the Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five initiative, Mr Weatherill said the need to reform early childhood education was as essential as the introduction of Medicare (Medibank) had been in the 1970s.

He argued that, in its current form, child care left parents frustrated and hundreds of dollars out of pocket each week.

The business case was straightforward, he said. Reducing the cost of early childhood education for families would: grow participation by releasing women to enter the workforce; increase productivity of students through early interventions; and drive population growth and, in turn, economic prosperity.

All the while, Mr Weatherill said, the cost of inaction was predictable and expensive.

“The current system is bad for children, bad for families and bad for the economy,” he said.

“If our elected representatives in state and federal parliaments are comfortable wearing the social and economic costs of inactivity, they should know this will come at a political cost.

“Parents are a politically mobile constituency.

“And they have a lived experience of an unaffordable, time-consuming, bureaucratic early learning system.”

That address, part of a broader, two-week trip to Canberra by Mr Weatherill and Mrs Forrest, serves as an effective summary of Thrive by Five’s aims.

Led by Mr Weatherill for the past 18 months, the initiative stems from Minderoo Foundation’s precursor, the Australian Children’s Trust, and campaigns for greater quality of and access to early childhood education.

Its growing political presence, in part due to Minderoo Foundation’s coffers swelling to become a more than $500,000-a-year endeavour, is something of a passion piece for Mrs Forrest.

While her husband has focused his attention on green steel, hydrogen and a variety of colourful and very public insults tossed at Tesla boss Elon Musk, Mrs Forrest has sunk considerable time into advocating for a more expansive vision of childcare than is currently offered by the federal government.

On the charitable front, the organisation has already partnered with the state government’s Department of Communities to deliver the 10-year Early Years Initiative, which aims to improve outcomes for children under the age of five in areas such as Armadale, Katanning and Gnowangerup.

Ahead of a federal election due in May 2022, however, the initiative has expanded its campaign arm and its political lobbying efforts.

Central to Thrive by Five’s argument is a report released in October that estimates the total cost of late interventions for childhood education at $15 billion, with the bulk of that money sunk into child protection, crime, and unemployment matters.

The report has also been at the forefront of efforts to get in front of federal ministers and party leaders.

Reflecting on the trip to Canberra this past month, Mr Weatherill told Business News that pressing the case for affordable and accessible childcare was as much an economic as a social policy.

“The federal budget is on the doorstep and the federal election is 12 months away,” Mr Weatherill said.

“We’ve been well received, but we haven’t received any commitments; the point of it is to campaign so we can encourage those commitments to be made from all sides of politics.”

While these efforts have been bolstered by a document entitled ‘Voices’, which outlines 100 stories from individuals failed by the existing childcare system, much of the group’s work of late appears to have centred on the economics behind early intervention.

That was evident in September, when Mr Weatherill cited the long-term economic impact of Australian children not attending pre-primary schooling at almost double the OECD average.

Further, Mr Weatherill has drawn attention to research from KPMG and The Grattan Institute that argues women will join the workforce if childhood education was made more affordable and accessible.

That argument received a major boost this past month with the Business Council of Australia declaring support for relaxing criteria to qualify for annual childcare subsidies in its federal budget submission, ostensibly as an effort to boost workforce participation.

It’s just one of several efforts Mr Weatherill believes can be rolled out almost immediately.

“There’s the big picture … plan and a vision, and here are some things [the federal government] could do, some no regrets steps they can take to build that plan out to show their bona fides and that they’re serious,” he said.

“They’d all be beneficial to children.”

Mr Weatherill’s familiarity with the subject is relatively unrivalled.

Having served as his state’s education minister immediately prior to becoming premier, he traces his interest in the subject back to findings made by Canadian researcher James Fraser Mustard for the SA Department of Education to understand the interconnectedness of early brain development and economic outcomes later in life.

The Canadian’s name now adorns that state’s Fraser Mustard Centre, a vehicle that brings together research in early childhood development and education policy.

Mr Weatherill maintained a keen interest in the subject through his seven-year tenure as premier, which made the move to Perth an easy sell when Minderoo Foundation came knocking in 2019.

“It seemed like a dream job,” he said.

“Thrive by Five is exactly the area that lined up with my interests.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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