Address – Raising Children Network 10 year anniversary breakfast

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much Julie for that welcome. To you, Frank, the incredible depth of Parliamentary colleagues from, certainly, I can see across both the Government and Opposition, any minor party representatives who are here. Thank you all for joining us this morning at this very important breakfast to celebrate 10 years of the Raising Children Network. Most of us in this room, I suspect, appreciate that the cliché that says there’s no tougher job, more important job and more fulfilling job than parenthood, it is of course quite true. I know that I can say to my friends and colleagues that when their having their first child, my one bit of advice is that actually most of the clichés are in fact true in some way, shape or form. They come about because of the need there, you never feel love quite like you do in those occasions, that you have for your own children. But the challenge of it as they get older is of course immense, for some the challenge through the pregnancy is immense and for some the challenges through the early years is immense, and for each the journey is a different journey and that makes it incredibly challenging for the provision of good, high quality advice. The beauty of the Raising Children Network is the drawing on a range of expertise, information, knowledge, including knowledge from parents and families and then being able to tailor advice in a way that suits a multiplicity of family scenarios, circumstances.

I think the incredible thing of the Network when I look across the website and the information that’s available, is that no topic seems too difficult. Yes, of course, the difficulties of childbirth, the difficulties of pregnancy are discussed, the difficulties of feeding, the early years, and the difficulties across a range of fronts but perhaps what struck me most, and in terms of the willingness of the Network to tackle the most difficult topics is when I saw a link to the story on talking to teenagers. Congratulations to the Network on tackling that. Whether, of course, that advice is anymore more successful than any others who knows, but in all seriousness though, it, of course, is one of the great problems we know that parents grapple with. As Education Minister I know that the most powerful tool and influencer in the educational outcomes of young people doesn’t happen in schools, doesn’t happen in universities, doesn’t happen in early learning facilities, it happens in homes, and the more we can do to empower parents, carers and families to have confidence, to take the right steps, to be able to successfully engage with their children, then the better the outcomes will be. Right across our society in terms of the educational attainment of those young people and children, but also, of course, their social, mental, healthy wellbeing, their connectivity to the rest of society, their ability to engage, their ability to succeed, their ability to be able to withstand, to be resilient to the different things that will buffer them through their lives. As a Government, we’re very proud to have pursued investment across particularly early learning and school education to try to make sure that the taxpayer dollars, federal investment in education gets the best possible results.

That’s why we’ve made sure with school funding we invest in a true needs-based model, and that we now really try to work with the states, to focus on how that record and growing investment can deliver the best results. It’s why, in our reforms to early education and child care funding, we have restructured arrangements to provide the greatest and a higher level of support through the new child care subsidy to the families who earn the least, up to 85 per cent support, then supported on top of that with significant additional child care subsidy that can pay up to 120 per cent the benchmark price for families at disadvantage who really need that support.

It’s why we have sought to extend the universal access arrangements on preschools for another year, but it’s also why I’m keen to have discussions over the course of this extension about where we take preschool engagement from here. Because we know that preschool, like early education, plays a critical role in preparing children for school, and that quality preschool is particularly beneficial for children from circumstances of disadvantage, helping to overcome some of those challenges in the home environment. And we have achieved enormous things, today we have in the year before they start full-time school, 93 per cent of children enrolled in preschool programs for at least 15 hours a week.

Importantly, we shouldn’t conflate this enrolment with participation and attendance. Attendance data still suggests that we have significant work to do in the preschool space in the early learning years. Of all the children enrolled, attendance data suggests around 30 per cent are not attending and participating regularly for the full 15 hours a week. And while participation is not compulsory, the rates of non-attendance which show as being higher in disadvantaged communities; higher still in Indigenous children, it begs the question of why these children are not attending when access is available, usually free. What can we do to help ensure they do attend, they do participate, and how can we ensure that parents understand the value of pre-school participation and get the support to engage in those early years.

Over the last 10 years, since the Federal Government put incentives in place for the states to expand the preschool offerings, governments of both persuasions have invested around $3.2 billion. And it’s wonderful that we have states now committed to universal access to that minimum standard, but our next challenge must be to say as a Federal Government if we are to continue to support activity in this space, how is it that we focus on the real challenge, the real problem, the real missing link, which of course is participation for those who have the most to gain, who most need it, and yet who are most missing out under current settings.

So your input in our thinking in terms of how to tackle some of those challenges is critical. There are many in this room who bring a range of expertise in terms of their knowledge of families, circumstances in families, and the challenges that they face. And as policy-makers, we need to draw upon your knowledge and understanding to help us ensure that the settings we put in place in the future do spend the taxpayer dollar to help those who need it most, to help those children get the benefits they can gain to succeed in life.

You are doing an incredible job in one of the most important areas, helping parents and families know more, understand more, we’re thrilled to support you were thrilled to celebrate this tenth anniversary. Congratulations. Thank you for all you do, and I look forward to continuing to work with you in the future.