“We’re asking people to go and get a Certificate 3 in Childcare just so they can go back to wiping noses and stop kids from killing each other.”
In uttering words to this effect recently, NSW Senator David Leyonhjelm gave voice to a common and worrying misconception about the role of early childhood education and care in our society. Across the human life course there is no period more impactful on development than the first three to five years of life, and the experiences children have – positive or negative – at this critical time can have lifelong impacts. This is especially true for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It’s in this context that we need to consider the critical role the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) sector plays in giving children the best opportunity to succeed in life.
If we, as a society, are committed to providing our children with the very best start, we must prioritise high quality childcare from the very beginning. We must also value the people providing that care for us – and support the development of their skills and knowledge.
Recently on The Project, Senator Leyonhjelm claimed that asking childcare workers to obtain qualifications and adhere to national standards was driving up the cost of care unnecessarily. These comments are echoed by many Australians who see Kindy or daycare as somewhere to ‘keep kids safe’ while we go to work, and that ‘real’ learning only starts when we get to primary school.
Having access to safe, affordable childcare so that we can participate fully in work and life is important. But to underestimate the positive impact that early education has on our children’s development misunderstands how kids grow and learn.
“Going beyond wiping noses is not a luxury or a choice, but the hallmark of a successful society and a smart economic investment.” – Matthew Cox
Brain development in infants begins in utero and proceeds at astonishing pace in the first years of life. In fact, human brains develop faster in the first 12 months of life than at any other time across the life course. Young children, especially under the age of five, are constantly absorbing and analysing the world around them, with the brain specially wired to soak up language and social cues.
It’s a time when children begin developing the social, emotional, language, early literacy and analytical skills they will have to rely on for the rest of their lives. The quality of the home and learning environment in which this growth occurs is incredibly important.
It’s important from an economic point of view as well. Nobel laureate economist James Heckman’s work shows the best returns on investment in human capital are made in the earliest years, with the payback of interventions later in life diminishing the older we get. Put another way, investing in health and education in the foundational years of life saves us money. Investing later, when human potential is already compromised by missed opportunities earlier in life, is more expensive and often ineffective.
Moves to boost the quality of early childhood services and provide highly skilled educators in early childhood settings must be seen in this light. They are an investment in the potential of our young people and future productivity of our nation.
Despite Senator Leyonhjelm’s statements to the contrary, the presence of a national regulatory framework like the 2012 National Quality Early Learning Framework has had a noticeable positive impact on the quality of childcare centres across Australia.
In Queensland alone, the number of childcare centres meeting or exceeding the national standard has increased from 1535 to 1906 in just the last year.