Early Childhood Education – a basis for life

| June 20, 2013

A solid early childhood education is a foundation for life. Catherine Fritz-Kalish outlines the current situation in Australia and urges for a more streamlined approach to support disadvantaged families.

Almost 300,000 children are born in Australia each year. Around 60,000 of these are seen as vulnerable, with many of their families being functionally illiterate, hampering their children’s education. The largest drain on the education system is the extra resources expended on children with poor early childhood experiences. Intervention for children at risk, ideally between 2 to 5, and certainly before the age of 8, is vital to ensure they fulfil their potential.

There is a great deal of knowledge generated by early brain development research which shows what needs to be done. However, despite the clear evidence regarding measures which will help children and their families, Australia lacks the mechanisms, staffing, structure and funding to put these measures into practice, although $6 – 8 billion dollars are currently spent on early childhood care and education every year. The haphazard nature of local, state and federal measures further complicates provision. Cost is a factor in the lack of family participation in the current service system, but there are other internal and external factors involved.

Improving maternal education is very important to improve outcomes for children, while adult education will also improve employment prospects. Canadian and other research has shown that encouraging women to re-enter the workforce helps reduce childhood poverty while the lifestyle of future mothers, in terms of substance abuse and other factors, must also be addressed to improve the prospects of their unborn children.

A new demonstration in Doveton, a suburb of Melbourne with an unemployment rate of 10.9 %, has provided high-quality learning and support for children, a suit of ‘wrap around’ services for residents with mental health or domestic violence issues and encouraged adult education.

Such multidisciplinary programmes, tackling early childhood education, family support, employment and adult education and health issues and other social issues, have no shortage of clients in deprived areas, but often struggle to maintain funding. Current funding models can hamper, rather than facilitate, such holistic schemes, and major reform is required to support and extend them. Multidisciplinary programmes are often dependent on funding from several government sources, and supportive political rhetoric from both sides of Parliament regarding ‘joined up funding’ and ‘streamlined services’ has not been matched by effective action to rationalise the system.

A great deal of time is wasted in applying for funds, rather than delivering services. Even when funding is received, programmes must then comply with many different contracts and sets of data requirements, for each department or agency offering funds, which further increases the administrative burden. Support workers are often employed for different lengths of time, depending on their source of funding, meaning long-term consistency and support planning is impossible. Cyclical economic fluctuations in spending also affect provision, being reduced at times when it is most needed.

Funding which supports disadvantaged families is usually provided by state governments, while child care rebates and benefits are funded by the Commonwealth. Services which combine those functions, such as a long day care centre, therefore tend to have a mix of funding streams, and ‘turf wars’ between the Federal Government and the States often ensue. Sensible discussions are required with the States in COAG forums to ease this where possible.

Australia clearly needs an alternative pathway for services targeted at vulnerable children. Children with poor early childhood experiences are likely to remain disadvantaged throughout their life, and so early action is vital in gaining access to them.