Yesterday morning, almost the entire early childhood advocate community gathered in an upper room of Monash University in Melbourne’s east.
There were educators, teachers and union organisers, sitting side-by-side representatives of the big childcare companies. There were for-profit childcare managers sitting beside CEOs of small community-based early learning centres. There were parents and even a few small children seated in the crowd.
Some of these people are not necessarily natural allies. But, the mood in the room was universally jubilant.
They had come together to hear Bill Shorten outline the reasoning behind his announcement that, if elected at the next election, Labor would fund two years of preschool for every three and four-year-old.
Delighted greetings were exchanged, and when Mr Shorten said he would commit to universal access to preschool for four and three-year-olds, the room broke into spontaneous applause.
This is the first time a federal political leader has properly committed to preschool in this country.
Federal Labor is committing to funding 15 hours a week, 600 hours a year, of play-based preschool learning for all children in their two years before school.
If delivered, this would (finally) bring Australia up to speed with much of our developed world competitors.
Right now, across OECD countries an average of 78 per cent of three-year-old children are enrolled in preschool.
In Australia, that figure is just 15 per cent.
“The number of Chinese three-year-olds in preschool is greater than the entire population of Australia,” Mr Shorten told the room yesterday.
We want to lift that figure not just so we stay internationally competitive.
The far more compelling reason for investing in preschool is the children themselves.
Children who enjoy two years of a quality, play-based learning preschool program do better at school, according to Professor Deborah Brennan and Susan Pascoe AM, who co-authored the 2017 Lifting our Game report.
The early years are the most critical time in a child’s development. Their brains are growing fast, faster than they ever will again. This time is an opportunity to give all children, and especially children in vulnerable situations, a fantastic foundation for education.
Children who have two years of preschool score better in testing. They are more likely to finish Year 12. They are more likely to go on to higher education. They are more likely to be employed in adulthood. And they’re less likely to go to gaol.
On the other hand, children who start school behind tend to stay behind.
Professor Brennan and Ms Pascoe describe extending Universal Access to preschool to three-year-olds as the “single most impactful reform” a government can make in early childhood.
There are hard numbers too.
In 2014, PriceWaterhouseCooper completed economic modelling into two years of preschool that showed a benefit of up to $13.3 billion to the Australian economy by 2050.
As for parents, we are nothing short of thrilled with the announcement.
This year, as has been the case for the last five years of the Coalition Government and the last few years of the former Labor Government, funding for universal access to preschool has only been offered to four-year-olds and only on a rolling 12 month basis.
Parents have not known one year to the next whether or not they would have to find an extra $3000 dollars in the budget for preschool for their four-year-old, let alone what they might be able to find for their three-year-old.
Each and every budget, parents and providers have held their collective breath in early May, hoping that this won’t be the federal budget that cuts preschool for four-year-olds. The idea of funding for three-year-olds seemed a distant pipe dream.
Labor’s policy announcement is offering parents (and provider and educators too) the security of knowing that the preschool fees have been taken care of.
We hope that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Education Minister Dan Tehan can carefully consider the proposal and offer parents this security too.
Alys Gagnon is the Executive Director of The Parenthood.