The case for universal early childhood education

Jul 11, 2023
Young smiling woman teacher sitting near colourful pencils early learning.

The implementation of universal high-quality early childhood education could be a game changer for Australian families and the economy.

The importance of quality schooling has long been recognised by government and society. In contrast, the role of early childhood education has historically been undervalued. Recently the pandemic highlighted the importance of early childhood education and care providers (e.g., day-cares, preschools) for working parents and for the national workforce. During the pandemic, free childcare was offered to incentivise workforce participation and to reduce financial pressure on families. Families across the nation rejoiced and early childhood educators were lauded as frontline workers who made a difference.

Since then, federal and state governments have been investigating how to best support the flailing early education sector to benefit Australian children, families, and the economy. Positive progress has been made. There have been increases in childcare subsidies including additional discounts for having multiple children in care. Some states also now provide free preschool education.

These changes benefit families but may not be enough to impact employment or access. For example, recent increases in childcare subsidies are positive but are invariably met with price hikes by for-profit centres (which form the majority of the sector) negating some of the benefits. Free preschool reduces financial pressure on some families and may increase preschool attendance but the hours, typically 15 hours a week and only in school terms, are not conducive to employment demands. Moreover, preschool doesn’t start until a child is 4 by which time some parents have been out of the workforce for many years.

UNICEF recently rated Australia as among the worst of rich-income countries in terms of affordability and access to childcare, and a recent report found childcare is unaffordable for up to 40% of Australian families. Childcare remains the largest barrier to female workforce participation in Australia. For some parents, it is simply not financially worth it to work. Others, most often mothers, work fewer hours which is linked with adverse impacts over their working lives and national impacts in terms of low maternal employment.

Mothers who are out of the workforce or underemployed while raising young children risk slower career progression and lower salaries even after returning to the workforce. This has long-term implications in terms of financial security, career stability, and accumulation of superannuation. All of which perpetuate existing gender inequality and the gender pay gap. This doesn’t even account for the impact of financial stress on families with is linked with adverse parenting and poorer child outcomes.

The economic case for the investment in early childhood education is clear. Economists estimate there are substantial benefits from investing in early education for children, families, and the economy. Canadian research found for every dollar invested the economy received benefits of $1.49-$2.78 from increased tax revenue and other benefits. Canada is now moving towards universal early childhood education and care which the Canadian government estimates will increase Canada’s GDP by 1.2% over the next two decades. Iceland spends 1.8% of its GDP on early childhood education and boosts the best maternal employment rates in the OECD. While causation assumptions cannot be drawn, this correlation is telling. James Heckman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, argues that investment in early childhood education fosters economic growth and provides societal returns making it cost-effective even in economically lean times.

Opponents of subsidised early childhood education argue it is outsourcing parenting and that parents (by whom they typically mean mothers) should stay home with children. As well as failing to acknowledge the associated economic impacts this viewpoint fails to account for the benefits of quality early education for children and the associated benefits for society. The first five years of a child’s life are a critical developmental period that impacts health and well-being right across life.

During the early years, children’s brains develop more rapidly than at any other stage in life. The quality of early environments actually impacts brain development and determine whether children reach their genetic potential. Rich, stimulating, learning environments are essential to maximise child outcomes. Quality early education centres are not merely babysitting children; they are educating them. Through planned play, children acquire early numeracy, literacy, and problem-solving skills as well as important social skills. Disadvantaged children, who may not otherwise experience rich learning environments, receive even greater benefits.

Universal early childhood education has the potential to benefit children through quality learning environments, to reduce financial pressure on parents, to reduce gender inequality by increasing father involvement in caregiving responsibilities and reducing the pay gap, and to enhance economic outcomes for Australia.

So, is universal early childhood education and care even realistic in Australia? Possibly. In February, the Government announced a Productivity Commission inquiry that aims to “chart the course for universal, affordable early childhood education and care“ in Australia. The report will be released mid-2024.

It is a lofty goal. It is not as simple as simply making existing centres free or nearly free. For real benefits to accrue a range of sector issues must be addressed. The quality of early childhood education must be high. Workforce issues and barriers to access must be addressed, and the sector must be valued. There must also be a concerted effort to ensure disadvantaged families access services. It’s a lofty goal but it is one worth pursuing. Universal early childhood education has the potential to be a game changer for Australian children and families and for our economy now and into the future.

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