Episode 8 (Bonus) – A better start in life: game-changing preschool reform in NSW & VIC

In this bonus episode, Jeni Whalan hosts a discussion on the recent commitments from both NSW and Victoria to deliver a year of universal play-based learning for children in the year before they start school. As well as transforming early childhood education, the goal is to build the sector workforce and further boost productivity by better supporting working parents. Leslie Loble, the co-chair of the Council on Early Childhood Development and Amanda Robbins, Managing Director of Equity Economics, outline the significance of the announcement and what it’s going to take to deliver this ‘triple dividend’ over the next ten years.

Episode 8 Transcript

Jeni Whalan: Hello, I’m Jeni Whalan and it’s great to be back with, yes, yet another bonus episode of Life’s Lottery: Backing Kids, made on Gadigal Lands. Now, we thought we were done with Season Two, where we explored what it would take to put children at the centre of policy, budgets, and governments’ work. And then the governments of New South Wales and Victoria, our two largest states here in Australia, have come out in the last week or so with some really remarkable announcements that brought us back into the recording studio to unpack them. In this episode, we take a look at what have been called game changing announcements from both the New South Wales and Victorian state governments to commit to and fund universal early learning for Australian children in the year before they start school. This not only shifts the dial by investing in early childhood development, something all our guests spoke to us about on Life’s Lottery in season two, but also by boosting workforce productivity as well.

So with me today is Leslie Loble. Leslie wears many hats. She’s the co-chair of the Council on Early Childhood Development and a fellow at the Centre for Policy Development. She’s also industry professor at UTS, the University of Technology, Sydney, where we’re coming to you from today and close to our hearts at the Paul Ramsay Foundation. She’s a Paul Ramsay Foundation fellow, where she’s leading some pioneering work on the use of AI and advanced technology to counter educational disadvantage.

Leslie Loble: Thanks, Jenny. Great to be here.

Jeni Whalan: And on the line from Washington, D.C., it’s great to welcome back Amanda Robbins, founder and director of Equity Economics, who helped us make sense of the federal budget earlier in season two of life’s lottery. Hi, Amanda.

Amanda Robbins: Hi, Jenny.

Jeni Whalan: So, Leslie, to you first. Just how significant are these announcements kicked off first in New South Wales, flagging a huge spending and policy commitment by government ahead of the state budget?

Leslie Loble: Well, Jenny, it’s big. There’s no doubt about it. We are really poised to take a major step forward in Australia. What New South Wales and Victoria have now done is thrown, in the case of New South Wales, nearly $12 billion over the next ten years into a really important complementary strategy that firstly recognises that by increasing the subsidy you absolutely also need to increase the number of places available. And in turn, that is directly dependent on having great people, great teachers, great educators employed. So that’s a big chunk of their investment. But then they also have made a big bet on an additional year of schooling. The guarantee of five days of preschool. That’s very substantial. And when you take the total package of the Commonwealth to states and territories as well as other investments that are across Australia, this is a very, very important moment.

Jeni Whalan: And tell us, what is it about these early childhood years that makes this such a game changing investment?

Leslie Loble: Well, I’m conscious that we wouldn’t be at this point without decades of research and evidence built by a very, very strong group, a network of people and corpus of research, and that has established over and over and over again that you get a triple benefit, triple dividend. Firstly, you liberate all that talent that women have, and at the moment they are the ones that have to sacrifice, whether they work at all or the hours they work. Secondly, you can create really important, viable careers if we invest the right way within the early childhood education and care sector. And then thirdly, and perhaps most important for the long term, is what you referred to before, which is children’s social emotional development and cognitive development. And we know that if you start well, you go well in life. And the payback is huge, both for the individual, for their families, and, of course, for all of us.

Jeni Whalan: And the neuroscience has been telling us that for a while, what we know and have known for some time now about the critical stages of a child’s brain development in the years before five. We certainly heard about that evidence in Life’s Lottery season two when we spoke to Professor Sharon Goldfeld, when we spoke to Jay Weatherill, the former premier of South Australia. But the evidence hasn’t been enough to translate it into government investment of the size and scale that we’ve just seen announced. What do you think has made the difference? Why? Why now?

Leslie Loble: I do pay homage to all those people who set the stage. But we are, somebody described it to me as it’s almost an alchemy at the moment, and it really is true. So there’s many factors. Firstly, we’ve now had at least two years of a very important conversation in Australia about women. Women bore the brunt of COVID. They were the first to have to give up their jobs. They were the first to dial back their hours. And what we saw was that we have a social infrastructure we’ve never paid enough attention to. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just women who had to give up. It was their families or their partners who had to change what they were doing because childcare was no longer available. All of that translated into the ballot box. And what we saw in the election was a real game changer. 

That also has led to a political dynamic where we see a lot more women candidates, we see a cabinet now that is, what is it, 40% women. So we see women now demanding more from government and expecting more. But it’s not just women, it’s their partners. There are families who know that this is important. So this translated into a political dynamic. And, as well, you now have a recognition within education sectors that learning doesn’t begin at kindergarten when they enrol in school. And that’s been a really important cultural shift and leadership from education ministers and, in this case, treasurers and premiers who see that the benefits are enormous.

Jeni Whalan: And Amanda, let’s pick up those points on the economic and productivity dimension of these announcements. This is a game changer, not just in terms of early learning, as we’ve heard from Leslie, but from that economic productivity point of view too. Tell us why.

Amanda Robbins: It is a game changer, particularly when we think about economics and budgets, which is the context we’re talking about today, that in the past this would have been a discussion around debt and deficits. We would have been talking about cost of living pressures and monetary policy responses, which we are all still discussing. But what is amazing is that the discussion is now turning to children and their well-being and their learning outcomes as a major economic investment in our country and a major boost to productivity in Australia.

And there is consensus largely across the field of economics that that is the case. And that productivity gain comes from a range of areas. Leslie spoke to the gains for children in terms of their development outcomes, their lifelong educational attainment outcomes, and even their lifelong earnings are shown to actually, through the growing amount of evidence, be enhanced through the kind of investment that New South Wales and Victorian Governments have announced today. But we also know, and it’s probably more established, that investing in childcare also provides a huge boost to female labour force participation. And when we’re talking about an economy that has historic levels of unemployment and we’re really confronting skills shortages across a range of sectors, having our human capital, highly qualified women, our entire workforce actually able to participate is hugely important. And it will be a key to actually addressing a major constraint on our economy at the moment, and that is our productivity constraint.

Jeni Whalan: So you’ve watched budgets come down at both state and federal level and indeed around the world for a long time now, Amanda, this is, in New South Wales, clearly a pre-election budget. Do we need to make some sense of what the decade-long reform that comes after this might mean in economic terms for the state?

Amanda Robbins: I think that’s right. And there’s no doubt the usual commentary would be that this is a pre-election budget and there’s some big spending here. But I think we have to give credit here that actually it’s not easy to take on a decade-long reform, but it’s also not easy when you’re confronting huge cost of living pressures. You are confronting fiscal constraints and there’s a range of pressures. We’ve just seen major stock market crashes. There’s pressures in many areas. To take on a significant reform of this nature is still extremely impressive.

But I think when we think about that long term cost and the fiscal sustainability of the decision, there is also a huge amount of evidence that shows the return on investment of investing in early learning and children is huge. In fact, there’s any number of evidence and research coming out. Just this year we’ve got new evidence from the Australia Institute, the Front Project’s an interesting example where we’re actually finding the return for every dollar you spend in early learning, early childhood development, you’re getting a $2 return over the life of the child. This is hugely important investment and it effectively pays for itself. In fact, it’s almost a question of how could we not undertake this investment at this time.

I would add as well that there’s a range of gains that come from this. So many people will see the clear benefits for women, being able to work. They’ll see the benefits for children in terms of having access, if it is good quality – and that is important – early learning. But there’s other benefits too. Over the long term, we will see improvements in our workforce capability in terms of the women entering the workforce today, but also the children that will be more highly educated and skilled and adaptable over time. And that then leads to, like the workforce that business needs, also generates the revenue that government needs to pay for these kind of long term investments. And all the research is pointing to that this is a win-win policy response in the short and long term, economically and socially.

Jeni Whalan: Well you know you’re onto something in policy reform terms where you look at it and think: how could we not have done it sooner? But you mentioned workforce there, Amanda, which is both a huge opportunity out of this game changing reform, but surely it’s also a pretty big constraint when we look at what the early childhood sector needs in terms of its workforce. Let me ask you both about that workforce issue and the balance of opportunity and obstacle that you see. Amanda, let me ask you first.

Amanda Robbins: Well, indeed, we face a skills shortage in many areas, but none more so than the caring workforce. And when it comes to childcare and early learning, we know we already face a major constraint in the workforce needs. There’s already pressures there and there’s a number of things that need to be done to address that. They range from addressing the wage issue and the low wages that are still confronting many predominantly female jobs, and particularly in early learning. We need to actually confront that wages challenge and there will be costs associated with that. But there’s also training and education needs to skill the workforce that can fill this huge growth in demand and need for skilled workers.

Jeni Whalan: And Leslie, you looked at these issues both on the advisory panel for the New South Wales Treasurer, head of these reforms, as well as well as your role as a co-chair in the initiative that led to the Starting Better Report. What did you see?

Leslie Loble: Amanda put it well which is, absolutely essential that we take this on. If you want to bring prices down and affordability, you have to look at availability. And that availability depends on having teachers and educators. We already are facing staff shortages in the sector. And if you look at the awards, educators can be paid barely above the minimum wage. And yet this is an education sector. If we want to get all those productivity returns, we have to really make sure we bring home this idea. This is not just care. This is education. And when it’s education, we need to see those teachers certainly being paid close, if not equal, to primary school teachers. We need to see very substantial changes in awards. We need to see the professional development opportunities that you find in the teaching workforce. You know, educators and teachers in early childhood education and care, they don’t have teacher development days. They’re working long hours every day. I don’t think we need to change the nature of the service, but we need to change very much the nature of the supports and the incentives that will push up the wages and conditions and make it an attractive career.

Jeni Whalan: So if we’re to generate the kinds of education benefits, the economic benefits, the social benefits that you’ve both been talking about out of these early childhood reforms. We need a workforce with good pay and good conditions. That doesn’t just poach from another sector of the care workforce, but that is there for the long term and in a sustainable way. That’s not going to be an easy challenge to solve.

Leslie Loble: It’s not. and I would say this though, I don’t think in any part of the care workforce we’re looking for generic care workers. So in early childhood education and care. It’s education. There’s real skill. There’s a curriculum. I also had the opportunity to provide advice on an outcomes measure. We need to have these sorts of things in place to really make sure that we’re driving quality not just through a regulatory scheme, but by the impact it’s having. And, as ever, in the care workforce, the people are what make the difference.

Jeni Whalan: We spoke to Jay Weatherill earlier in Life’s Lottery season two and he put to us one of the enduring paradoxes of early learning and that is that the kids of the families who stand to benefit most use the services least, and that’s particularly because of access and affordability constraints. What can we do, Amanda, in this era of policy reform to really generate the game changing outcomes and not see a universal early childhood platform produce some of the ongoing inequalities that we see in, say, universal schooling platforms.

Amanda Robbins: So I think that’s exactly right. And we’ve seen some research only recently from the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University that really talks about the childcare deserts that exist around Australia. And that was something like 35% of the Australian population is existing in those childcare deserts. So access, including in the most disadvantaged communities, is critical to make this reform a success. And I think that’s why it may be controversial to say that I don’t think, as huge and important as this reform is, it won’t necessarily be enough to reach all the children that we’re really aiming to reach here. And that is because childcare is a huge part of the solution, but so too is a much more integrated health and education and family services system that will reach the children who are most in need to make sure they do access universal early learning. So it’s much more than a child care policy that is needed. And I think what we’re actually hearing from government is that they’re actually saying they’re up for that, including from the federal government with their early years plan, which is really about setting a much longer term plan around children and their families and making sure that they have connected and integrated supports and services to make sure we we actually do reach the most in need.

Jeni Whalan: Leslie, what do you think?

Leslie Loble: I will say that the Women’s Economic Opportunity Panel that advised the Treasurer, we very consciously decided to complement the Commonwealth commitment to increasing subsidy. And so the three quarters of a billion dollars over five years that’s been provided for childcare plus another 280 million or so goes directly towards filling those childcare deserts. Its entire focus will be on increasing the supply and availability in those areas that are currently underserved and those priority populations that need to be served. 

Jeni Whalan: And here we’re talking about regional areas, rural, remote. We’re talking about First Nations communities.

Leslie Loble: Absolutely. But also metropolitan areas and populations that are underserved as well. There’s also scope in that for piloting innovative arrangements for inclusion for hours. There are a lot of shift workers out there who can’t get access to childcare at the moment, so it is very much about the supply. The second piece is very much about the workforce. $25,000 scholarships for teachers, but importantly in there is also the ability for those funds to be used to address the wages problem. Now, this is a challenge for government because this is a mixed sector, right? 60 to 70% of the long day-care sector is now not only not government, it’s for profit. So there are many challenging areas in this complex sector, but it’ll be important that those tax dollars are genuinely delivered to those pieces that they’re intended for.

The other thing I would just mention is you referred to Starting Better Before and starting better is all about those interventions that are anchored on the child. And I think not only is it the early years strategy, but when the Prime Minister talks about wanting universal child care, I think our challenge will be, our opportunity will be, to define universal child care. We have Medicare as universal health care, but that embodies a range of services. So why couldn’t we say universal child care also becomes an anchor for which you can attach services that really help that child development and education.

Jeni Whalan: We’ve all been celebrating the political leadership that’s been shown behind these announcements in investing in early childhood education. But there are also those who say it doesn’t go far enough, that starting at age three or four is already too late. In fact, the Nobel Laureate James Heckman says you actually need to bring that intervention earlier because to start at age three or four fails to recognise that skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way. So Amanda, are we going far enough?

Amanda Robbins: Well, I guess I’m someone who’s just learnt to be grateful after a decade of the Sleepy Hollow that we have existed in. Of course we would always say there’s more to be done and in fact we have had that discussion today – talking about it isn’t just childcare, it’s a range of interventions and supports that are needed to truly reach the most disadvantaged children. So there is certainly more that we would like to see. But I think the absolute transformation in the nature of the conversation we’re able to have, the end of the adversarial, dismissive, even confrontational, approach that we’ve had to formulating policy in our country is so welcome that I would just say I, like many in the sector, absolutely support this reform and will be, along with the rest of the sector, trying to make it work because that of itself will be tremendously difficult. So let’s start here, but let’s also have, as part of that ten year plan, a much more comprehensive conversation around children and their needs.

Jeni Whalan: And look, we shouldn’t let it pass too without noting how remarkable it is that we’ve got governments of both major parties from both sides of the aisle embracing these reforms as well. In New South Wales, a Liberal state, and Victoria a Labor state. Leslie, for you. Is this going far enough?

Leslie Loble: Well, if I had one wish, it would be that everybody involved in this space, including governments, but not exclusively took the view: “yes, and, rather than no, but”. I’ve sat around many a ministerial policy table. I’ve sat around tables of officials, I’ve been involved in coalitions. And we can have a tendency, because we want so much, we can have a tendency to find fault. So I say what we all need to do is say, no, this is an unbelievable starting point. The second thing is because it’s “yes, and” we need to keep the pressure up. Because there will be many priorities that will intrude on this space. It’s a ten year vision. And it will take ten years to get there. You know, chairing the Early Childhood Development Council, we had John Menadue come talk to us and we asked him, how did you get universal health care and Medicare? And he said, it took us ten years. It will take us ten years to get what we want. All the celebration we’re making now has to be translated as well into energy to keep pushing for what we really want to see, which is universal early childhood education and care and development.

Jeni Whalan: So you’ve both alluded to just how hard the work ahead is, to put these announcements into practice. And there’ll be a whole generation of policy makers cutting their teeth on some of these big reforms. And a huge community, both inside government and outside it, working really hard to make them stick. Can I finish by asking each of you for your piece of advice? What would be the one tip, the one piece of advice, the one thing you would hope to see over that decade long reform, if the policy is to translate into practice? Amanda.

Amanda Robbins: It would be that unless we reach the most disadvantaged children, we have not succeeded. And that, for me, will require more than child care. We need to be talking about child well-being, and that will take the ten years, as Leslie said. But it will also involve many more departments, many more people, many more sectors, in a very diverse and capacity built workforce to make that happen. So if we’re going to see the transformational change we want for all children, it’s going to be a long term comprehensive reform that’s targeting child well-being.

Jeni Whalan: Leslie?

Leslie Loble: Well, I think Amanda puts it very well. And so I would just complement that by saying that we need to have processes that bring those voices in. What we have now is a generation of political leaders who I daresay have looked at their own lives, their own families, and have recognised just the power that this has. When you look at the development of young children and the educational opportunities, I think the commitment to universality is really important and that commitment is the one that Amanda refers to. We won’t have it unless we’ve reached everybody in Australia, when every family no longer has to think about it the same way they don’t have to think about whether they’re going to be able to access public education or Medicare. That’s what we’re looking for and that means we need to bring those voices in to the conversation in order to achieve that.

Jeni Whalan: Leslie, Amanda, thank you so much for joining us today on Life’s Lottery. We’ve got a lot to watch over the coming weeks, months, and it sounds like years. And thank you so much for sharing your insights and wisdom with us and our life’s lottery audience.

Leslie Loble: Thanks, Jeni.

Amanda Robbins: Thanks, Jeni.

Jeni Whalan: And you can find out more about our guests at life’s lottery dot com dot AU, and please do leave us your comments and your feedback while you’re there. 

Life’s Lottery Backing Kids is a podcast from the Paul Ramsay Foundation in partnership with UTS Impact Studios. I’m Jeni Whalan. Bye for now.

Season 2 Overview

Backing Kids, the second season of Life’s Lottery, explores how Australian society values children and childhood. Kids are our future, but they’re rarely at the centre when it comes to the decisions that really matter. What would it take to truly put kids at the heart of policy, of budgets, and broader public work? 

We’ll hear the voices of advocates, experts, children and their parents and caregivers with bright and practical ideas about how we can improve kids’ health and wellbeing. We’ll dive deep into the Federal Budget and explore how it does, and doesn’t, reflect the realisation of children’s rights. We’ll hear about how young First Nations voices have informed policy development to improve the lives of First Nations kids. We’ll consider how place-based, universally accessible services could better reach vulnerable families and improve the wellbeing of all children. 

Two years of the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted children’s education as well as physical and mental health and exacerbated the challenges faced by the most vulnerable. There has never been a better time to talk about how we could better back our kids and improve their odds in Life’s Lottery.  

 

We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas for future episodes.

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Life’s Lottery is produced in collaboration with UTS Impact Studios

Executive Producer: Olivia Rosenman

Audio Producer: Nicole Curby

Researcher/writer: Jackie May

Theme Music and Sound Design: James Milsom

Production Music: Blue Dot Sessions

Graphic Design: Celia Neilson