One doesn’t have to pay too much attention to the political sphere to work out that early education just isn’t the Federal Coalition’s ‘thing’. The very name of their centrepiece policy, Jobs for Families, shows what their priorities are. The recent Federal Budget and associated pre budget announcements by the Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham also reflect the Coalition’s lack of interest in ensuring children in Australia get the best start to their education.
One thing that is there, however, is the rhetoric. The minister stated that ‘childcare’ delivers valuable and important early education benefits. He also said “it is critical that children in the earliest years have access to a quality preschool education in the year before they begin school”. Strong words eh? One would expect them to be followed by an avalanche of funding announcements and by a clear vision and policy to ensure every Australian child has access to a quality early education.
But don’t hold your breath. The minister squibbed it. Scott Morrison, in delivering the Budget, squibbed it. The Prime Minister, forgetting all those Jobs for Families package photo opportunities with young children at early education services, also squibbed it.
A few days before the Budget the minister announced a one year only $428 million extension to the National Partnership Agreement on universal access to early childhood education. One year. Why just one year? Because this will “allow for proper discussions with the states and territories on how we fairly guarantee in an ongoing sense 15 hours of preschool beyond that, given the very different models of preschool delivery that apply from one state to another”. Given that in the four years the Coalition has been in power we have had no less than four short term extensions to the Universal Access National Partnership Agreement, one would think they could have had the “proper” discussions with the states and territories by now!
So did the Budget deliver anything new to the early education and care sector? No, it didn’t. The Government used it to reiterate its commitment to delivering the Jobs for Families package – or as this was expressed: “The Government has delivered significant early reform of the child care system that will help support Australian families who want to work, or work more.”
And this is what it comes down to. For the Coalition Government, despite the rhetoric, early education and care is nothing more than a means to workforce participation. It is about delivering women to employers. It is about productivity and increasing the GDP. It has nothing to do with children and their right to learn. It has nothing to do with making sure children have the best start to life. It is nothing about a vision of the sort of country we could be.