Thrive by Five campaigners say pandemic should prompt early learning reforms

Jay Weatherill and Nicola Forrest will call for an overhaul of the early learning system at the National Press Club today. Picture: Keegan Carroll
Jay Weatherill and Nicola Forrest will call for an overhaul of the early learning system at the National Press Club today. Picture: Keegan Carroll

The COVID-19 pandemic should be the catalyst for wide-ranging reforms to the early childhood education and care system.

This is the central argument of the Thrive by Five campaign, which is calling for universal access to a high-quality, affordable early learning system.

Minderoo Foundation co-founder Nicola Forrest said reforms would have huge social and economic benefits.

"We're talking about an ecosystem that protects children and their families from the moment they conceived, and particularly from the moment they're born till the first day of school, to make sure that they meet all their developmental milestones and that they are looked after by the village that raises the child," Mrs Forrest said.

The essential role of early childhood education was thrust into the spotlight when COVID-19 hit and the federal government switched to a free childcare model to ensure essential workers' children would be cared for and centres could stay financially afloat.

The overnight change gave families a glimpse of what life could be like without staggering childcare fees.

The cost of childcare in Australia is among the highest of OECD countries, taking up an average of 27 per cent of household income.

Thrive by Five chief executive and former premier of South Australia Jay Weatherill said second income earners, mostly mothers, were penalised for going to work full time through the current tax and transfer system.

"The Grattan Institute is documented that if you want to work more than part time work, you're facing effective rates of disincentive which exceed 100 per cent. In other words, you actually go backwards... by coming to work you actually it costs you money," he said.

Meanwhile, more than 20 per cent of Australian children are arriving at school developmentally vulnerable.

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Mrs Forrest, who co-chairs the Mindaroo Foundation with husband Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest, said early intervention was needed before children reached school age to give them the best opportunity for success.

"Already children are falling through the cracks and that number has actually been increasing.

"And at the same time, our numeracy and literacy rates are falling and I think the problem is being thrown at teachers, that they're not performing and yet they're having to act as social workers more than educators because they're having so many children with developmental delays and problems."

Mr Weatherill said the ACT and Victoria's move to implement universal access to preschool for three-year-olds was a positive step which other states and territories should follow.

"It's certainly something that I think the Commonwealth could could play an important role through the national cabinet in accelerating other jurisdictions to take that step," he said.

Mr Weatherill said reforms in the sector had been slow because of the complex tangle of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the states as well as outdated ideas of childhood development and women's roles in the workforce being embedded in the systems.

"We've been for so long thinking about these things that COVID has revealed them to us."

Mrs Forrest and Mr Weatherill will address the National Press Club today.

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This story 'Falling through the cracks': Calls for better, cheaper early learning first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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