Early childhood education, access and equity: lessons from China

May 21, 2021

As the much-touted childcare funding in the federal budget appears increasingly as an announcement, rather than a commitment, perhaps we should be looking to China to start developing long-term strategies to reform Australia’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) system.

Beset by many of the issues that the Australian early childhood sector faces today, in 2010 a coalition of representatives from the Ministries of Education, Finance, Science and Technology and the Human Resources Departments Economics, Finance and Education worked with 500 specialists across research disciplines, professionals in the field, local government, policy makers and families to produce an ambitious plan that by 2020 aimed for 95% of preschool-aged children to be enrolled in at least one year of preschool and 70% to be enrolled in a three-year program. At the time China had a per capita PPP annual income of only $US 9,210 whereas Australia’s income is currently $US 51,760.

It was Early Childhood Australia’s (ECA) response to the federal budget (May 11, 2021) that prompted us to think of China as an exemplar of how to build a coherent national system that will benefit all families, increase workforce participation and support the growth of the creative and innovative workforce needed by a knowledge economy. ECA was pleased with the monies that the government announced it would provide the sector though disappointed at the narrow target and the 15- month wait before delivering and observed:

For Australia to reach its potential in early childhood education, ECA believes investment is needed to ensure:

  • all three-year-old children have access to a quality preschool program for two years before they transition to school, regardless of parental workforce activity;
  • all families can access affordable early learning for their children; and
  • sufficient numbers of qualified educators and teachers in the early childhood workforce nationwide (ECA Media release, 2011).

These were the elements that ECA identified that Australia would need to provide before it could boast a world-class system of ECEC. As Australia scores poorly in international comparisons of ECEC among high-income countries it might be worth examining some factors that have enabled China’s extraordinary progress.

To achieve the outcomes listed by ECA a 2020 report titled A future for the world’s children? A WHO-UNICEF-Lancet commission has recommended the following prerequisites for achieving sustainable reforms in ECECFirst, there must be a long-term vision, second, a commitment to invest and third, the capacity to mobilise across all levels of government and participating communities.

A long-term vision is clearly missing in Australia. While both countries have policies and legislation that include curriculum guidelines, standards for teacher education, professional teacher standards, early learning and development guidelines and accredited staff training courses Australian government resources have a narrow focus on ECEC as workforce support. China has a more long-term vision with expenditure in ECEC perceived to be a key part of its effort to build the highly skilled labour force it will need as it constructs a globally competitive high value-added economy.

The second prerequisite was a commitment to invest. Research abounds on the advantages of investing in the early years. The following figure, known as the Heckman curve, expresses the work of the American Nobel prize winner James Heckman who has repeatedly emphasised the need to invest in human capital accumulation across the lifespan and stressed the high rate of return to be gained by investing in ECEC.  Responding to this research, China’s government has awarded Heckman the China Friendship Award which is the highest honour given to foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to the modernization of China. The commitment to universal, quality ECEC is influenced by Heckman’s research.

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Figure 1. The Heckman curve

The other significant research finding related to investment is the association between private provision, affordability, accessibility and a quality preschool workforce. In the 1990s ECEC in China was largely considered a consumption good to be purchased by the individual from private suppliers Indeed in 2006 the Shenzhen Municipal Government chose to transform its public preschools into self-funded enterprises even though there was a great outcry by parents, teacher strikes and those concerned with equity. On studying ECEC exemplars in countries like France and Sweden, countries where ECEC is deemed a public good, available to all and primarily supplied by government, the privatisation agenda was abandoned. Shenzhen is now being developed as a model socialist provider.

There is still a private sector in China but federal and provincial governments have made robust efforts to regulate private providers and at least 50% of kindergartens are public. By contrast, in Australia, the private sector is large, powerful and exerts downward pressure on high-ticket items like staff qualifications and child/staff ratios because of a commitment to profit margins.

The third prerequisite for sustainable reforms identified in the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet report was the capacity to mobilise. We have seen how not to do this as we have observed the circus that is the COVID vaccination rollout in Australia. This does not bode well for ECEC federal, state and local government cooperation, a bipartisan approach across political parties, multisectoral engagement, consultation and collaboration with community participants and the general population.

Our present political and economic climate is governed by self-interest and individual preference. Our leaders are often despotic as Malcolm Turnbull was when he rejected the Uluru Statement. This article suggests we could do better in building a society that is more just, equitable and economically competitive if we can develop a long-term vision for ECEC. ECEC is a sector that is being weaponized to suggest the government is doing something about the “woman” question while extra funding from the budget is targeted at small cuts in fees for some families next year. This move is to ostensibly encourage workforce participation. The Chinese example can show us ECEC is much more than workforce support and has long-term benefits for all.

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