One year on, has the game been lifted?: In conversation with Deborah Brennan

by Freya Lucas

March 06

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.

Senior officials from Australian states and territories asked for evidence of the value of early learning and the difference it makes to the educational trajectory of children’s lives. The resulting report, Lifting our Game; Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools through Early Childhood Interventions, 2017, was tabled in December 2017, and shared more broadly in February 2018. Co-author Deborah Brennan met recently with The Sector to share her thoughts on how Australia has responded to the report’s findings, and the key themes that still need to be addressed.

 

Centreing on six key themes (Embedding foundations for future reform and improved education and life outcomes; Progressively expanding access to quality early childhood education, for example preschool, for all three year olds; Targeting additional support for some children and families to promote access, equity and inclusion; Focusing on quality improvement and workforce issues; Improving parent and community engagement; Supporting associated transparency and accountability measure) the report makes the case that international evidence that education begins at birth is so compelling that Australia needs to “lift its game”

 

At the time of publication, Community Early Learning Australia (CELA) described the report as “a rare thing – both true and politically astute. The report is well written and deeply satisfying for anyone who believes in the power of quality early learning”.

 

Core messaging from the report identified by CELA included:

 

  • Current Commonwealth early childhood education (ECE) spending really only helps parents who work
  • Children who start school behind, stay behind
  • Quality ECE makes a significant contribution to educational excellence in school
  • Investment in ECE returns two to four times the costs
  • The benefits are even greater for disadvantaged children
  • Three-year-old children need 15 hours per week of quality preschool
  • Australia’s complex ECE system is a barrier to families and to efficiency
  • A national, funded, workforce strategy is essential.

 

In her recent conversation with The Sector Assistant Editor Freya Lucas about the progress made since the reports publication, Professor Brennan shared her thoughts on what she’s hoping for from the upcoming election period, and why it is so important for the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector to become politically aware.

 

When asked which of the six key themes of the report had seen the most progress, Professor Brennan was pleased to note that the efforts made in progressing towards all three-year-old children having access to preschool, saying, “There seems to have been a lot of action about this, and that’s not just down to Lifting Our Game.

 

“I think things have really come together with three-year-old preschool – we’ve had the Federal Labor commitment on that now, and with NSW and Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory [Labor commitments], you’d definitely say that theme is one on the move”

 

In terms of the key area with the greatest room for growth and improvement, Professor Brennan was torn, saying the decision about which theme should receive the most attention was like being asked to choose a favourite child. After some reflection, the theme centreing on embedding foundations for reform was chosen because Professor Brennan said, “that’s the one where there’s lots of room [for improvement] – we’ve got so many initiatives in our country that are on really shaky ground.”


“We have the big announcement, we have the first term of funding, but we’re really impacted by weak policy commitments and short term budgets…that one really impacts.”

 

The workforce element was also a huge consideration, Professor Brennan said, adding that there is a huge need to “develop the workforce, to professionalise it, and to recognise and pay the educators in a way that really says we actually as a society mean what we say when me make pronouncements about valuing children and those who care for them – I think there’s a lot of room there too.”

“we don’t want money just going to additional profits and dividends,
we want to see the extra money going to educators.”

Drawing on the changes brought to the ECEC sector by the introduction of the Child Care Package reform, Professor Brennan was asked if the changes had helped or hindered the pursuit making early learning accessible to all children.


On this point, Professor Brennan was clear and forthright, saying:

“Any vision for early learning that excludes children on the basis of their parents workforce participation or workforce preparation activity goes completely against the principle of targeting support for children experiencing vulnerability or disadvantage.”

“Personally, I can’t see the logic of excluding children whose parents don’t have jobs or aren’t looking for work, because those children should actually be the priority.”

 

Professor Brennan acknowledged the Child Care Safety Net and the Community Child Care fund, saying these offer “some assistance, but they’re limited, they’re highly bureaucratic, they’re quite off-putting to families. I’d actually really like to see us going exactly the opposite direction.”


She highlighted further concerns about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families, saying “The whole transition of the budget-based funding to mainstream funding has largely been a disaster for those families and communities. Those things have been very damaging in terms of who has access to early learning.”


Touching on the opening recommendations of the report, which centre on commitment to funding, both in terms of making Universal Access (UA) a permanent feature of budgets, and in terms of securing funding for three year olds, Ms Lucas asked Professor Brennan what role the upcoming elections in NSW – and at a national level – will play in moving the ECEC sector closer to, or further from, the outcome of guaranteeing that funding and making sure about that early learning is accessible for our three-year-olds as well.

 

“Both the elections are critically important,” Professor Brennan said.

 

“At the Federal level, the Australian Labor Party (ALP)  is setting the agenda, because it has now made a commitment to UA for three year olds, and to restoring funding for the National Quality Framework, which is critical. That’s now a commitment that’s there for the Government to match, if it wishes to.”


“In terms of NSW, I know that there’s a very strong statement from the sector, pressing the Berejiklian government for access to affordable preschool, and special measures for disadvantaged children and workforce strategy and so on.”

 

Building on the theme of politics and political engagement, Professor Brennan was asked why, in the lead to these key elections, was it important for those in the ECEC sector who don’t see themselves as being able to make a difference, or those who don’t  consider themselves to be engaged in a political sense, to develop an awareness, and to become involved.

 

“Elections generally are a good time to increase awareness because they’re a way to really focus the attention of the parties and to really get those core messages (about the value of early learning) out into the community.”

“We’ve learned, as a sector, how to really put these things on the agenda, but that really needs to be backed up by strong community involvement, otherwise the parties and the politicians would simply let that slip in this on to the next issue, to whoever’s making more noise, the next squeaky wheel,” Professor Brennan said.

 

Finally, Professor Brennan was asked for her perspective on what the next 12 months in ECEC might bring.

 

“I’m really hoping to see ECEC right the top of the political agenda, not just during election campaigns but when governments actually take office. As well as the recommendations, I keep coming back to that point that access for vulnerable children and families is just vital.

 

“I’d really like to see attention to the wages and conditions of educators, we really have to fight hard on this issue, and that is going to involve additional public subsidies and it has to be really carefully thought through and designed as a policy because we don’t want money just going to additional profits such as like dividends, we actually want to see extra money going to educators.”

 

Professor Deborah Brennan BA Syd., MA Macq., PhD Syd., FASSA, is one of Australia’s leading researchers in comparative welfare, family policy and gender and politics. She has held visiting positions at the London School of Economics, Oxford University, Trinity College Dublin and the University of Melbourne.

 

She is the author of The Politics of Australian Child Care (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and co-editor with Louise Chappell of ‘No Fit Place for Women‘. Women in New South Wales Politics, 1856-2006 (UNSW Press, 2006) as well as numerous scholarly articles in the areas of gender, politics and family policy.

 

She has contributed to national and international debates in her field and has advised both the Australian and UK governments on the development of policies for families and children. Deborah is a member of several international research networks including the Feminist International Institutionalist Network (FIIN), the Political and Social Economy of Care (PASEC), the International Network on Leave Policies and Research, and a network on Migration and Care in the Asia-Pacific.

 

More information about Professor Brennan and her work may be found here.

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