Remarks at Early Learning, Everyone Benefits Event, Canberra

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Sam. It’s a real pleasure to be able to be with you today, with you all. I’m thrilled to follow on from Megan and support this work in terms of release of the State of Early Learning report and indeed the discussion about how it is we maximise the benefits from early learning across Australia.

I too acknowledge the traditional owners and acknowledge that we – particularly as Education Minister – that we continue to learn much more of Indigenous culture and knowledge, to build upon it together as a nation into the future.

We have many reasons to be optimistic and positive about early childhood education. Of course, the driving reason, the most obvious reason are the young children we have here at the arts centre who are up the back because they inspire, they motivate, they demonstrate the value, the worth and the opportunity that lies in the early childhood landscape. But also some of the accomplishments, significant accomplishments over relatively short periods of time in terms of the enhanced professionalisation of early childhood education, the enhanced participation and access that’s occurring across the early childhood landscape.

That of course has come with enhanced investment by governments, particularly by the Federal Government in Australia, and that growth in investment is set to continue too in the future, particularly with the new child care subsidy program coming into effect next year. The forecast elevation position: $2.5 billion of investment in early childhood education, but early childhood education that also supports the dual purpose of better helping Australian families to balance their work and family obligations, to be able to provide the type of support for their children, but also their family circumstances as necessary. That’s why we’ve been very keen to make sure that the restructuring of child care subsidies has provided greater levels of assistance to those who work the longest hours but earn the least. It’s also why it, of course, is coupled with a $1.2 billion child care safety net, to help to provide focused additional access for those children who need it most.

It’s come alongside years and years now of investment around universal access to pre-school and, as you’ve heard from Megan, that has had enormous success in terms of enrolment numbers, and indeed boosting participation. This year it will benefit nearly 350,000 children across Australia’s nearly 11,000 pre-schools. The pre-school market, as such, remains a market of mixed delivery models. There are over 4000 dedicated pre-school settings and pre-school programs, coupled with pre-school delivered by around 6700 long day care centres. The differences of course, as many of you who are expert in this field appreciate, across different states and territories are quite stark. Pre-school delivery has long been the domain of the states and territories primarily and the Commonwealth’s top-up funding as such though has helped to really drive transformation in terms of access and enrolment numbers.

We do know that the structure, as I say, varies notably, and from that the way in which support from the Commonwealth also varies notably from state to state. Of course, the universal access agreement notionally sets a similar per student level of support across pre-school settings right around the country, but for those in long day care delivering pre-school settings, the support that flows by way of anticipated child care subsidies in the future is close to a further $4000 per annum per child – a very significant additional level of support; it is significantly greater under the child care reforms the Turnbull Government has brought through.

This plays through in different ways, because in Queensland more than 30 per cent of pre-school is accessed via long day care settings; whereas in Western Australia, for example, only around 7 per cent of pre-school is accessed via long day care settings. Vastly different delivery modes across the country, of which there is nothing wrong with that, but certainly for which in terms of policy settings and subsidy settings you have to make sure that we approach with fairness and equity into the future.

But a particular thing that I want to make sure we focus on when looking at the future of pre-school access is of course how we maximise participation, and participation by those who have the greatest to gain. Today we, as you’ve heard, have nearly all children enrolled in pre-school in programs that are available for at least 15 hours a week. And our most recent data tells us indeed the enrolment across all cohorts is very strong, at 92 per cent of Indigenous children, for example, were enrolled in programs available 15 hours a week. But we shouldn’t conflate enrolment with participation. Yes, we’ve seen enormous growth in participation over a period of time, but available attendance data suggests we do still have significant work to be done when it comes to regular participation.

Of all the children enrolled, attendance data suggests that around 30 per cent are not regularly participating for the full 15 hours a week. For Indigenous children, this number is even higher, with around 40 per cent not regularly participating at least 15 hours a week, and in some geographical locations, we can see a number as high as 79 per cent not regularly participating. While participation in pre-school is not compulsory, these rates are low enough to be of concern, and particularly when we’re talking about children who will often have some of the greatest developmental challenges, often have some of the most to gain through early childhood education participation, but are the ones who are most missing out on participation, notwithstanding the increased availability of that free pre-school service and of those subsidies in so many of those settings.

So, having some 10 years after starting the pursuit of universal access and $3.2 billion worth of investment at the Commonwealth level, we’ve still got a little way to go to make sure that participation is truly resolved. As we look to the forward years, I want to make sure that future investments really do target to ensure that we get the greatest support and the greatest participation for those children who have the most to gain.

I want to thank, in closing, those of you in the room who work so passionately in the early childhood space. As a dad to a five-year-old and a six-year-old, I’ve lived early childhood education over the last few years. I know well and truly the benefits that you accord in many different, many different opportunities that are provided to advance learning and skills that help with preparation for school. This is an important, critical part of our educational landscape. It’s one though that we must get right in terms of where it goes in the future, and to do that we must make sure that we deliver the support, as I say, to those who need it most.

So thank you for focusing our attention in terms of these areas today, for your ongoing work, and we certainly look forward to continuing to work with you. Thanks so much.