Release type: Speech

Date:

Early Childhood Australia Virtual Conference - Backing the Early Childhood Sector

Ministers:

The Hon Alan Tudge MP
Minister for Education and Youth

Thank you, Aunty Denise for the Welcome to Country.

Thank you Sam, and Christine Legg, National President of ECA, for hosting this conference and for the work ECA does.   

I’m glad to be able to join you this morning, even if it is only virtually.

I am currently in quarantine in Melbourne, and believe me, I’d rather be there in Brisbane!

As efficient as we have all become with Zoom – it’s not the same as when you’re able to network and collaborate together in the same place.

But on the plus side, this virtual conference means many more of your members, particularly early childhood educators and teachers to participate across the conference.

Today I would like to address COVID supports for the sector, the workforce challenges and our new initiatives announced in recent months, including Closing the Gap measures.

The fact we are coming together online is an important reminder of where we are right now – with the nation’s two most populous states, NSW and Victoria, as well as the ACT in extended lockdowns. 

For our children, this is the resilience lesson none of us wanted them to have. Schools disrupted, and early learning environments too. 

I am very concerned about the impacts on education and mental health these extended lockdowns are having.

Kids Helpline has reported a 200% increase in calls from 5-year-olds over the first six months of 2021. We need to see an end to lockdowns as soon as possible.

We are very focused on our National Plan to see vaccinations at 70 to 80 per cent so we can open up - so school can open up, so preschools, kindies and child care services can be fully open too.

I would take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get vaccinated so we can reach those targets quickly. And also, to protect yourselves, your colleagues and importantly the children you care for.

There are currently no vaccines approved for children under 12 anywhere in the world – so the way to protect our kids and the broader community is for all adults and older children to get vaccinated.

Of course, we know younger children are much less likely to get seriously ill from COVID – but vaccination is our way forward. Vaccinations are how we re-open, how we get society and businesses open.

I want to acknowledge the impact these lockdowns have had on your sector and your workforce – particularly in my home state of Victoria which has been impacted more than anywhere.

I want to say a huge thank you to the educators and teachers, centre directors and leaders for the incredible job you always do, but especially during this pandemic.

Please know you are appreciated.

As Australians are asked to stay home, you are asked to keep showing up. And you do – continuing to offer education and care to children, including for the children of frontline health and emergency workers. 

And we are backing the sector.

We have invested around $3 billion since the start of the pandemic to keep child care services viable and staff in work.

We are currently providing around $40 to $50 million a week in COVID payments to child care services across NSW, Victoria and the ACT so that those services can waive families’ fees if they are not using care and can keep staff employed. 

This support is available to more than 8,000 services which provide care to around 725,000 children.

We saw families last year nation-wide quickly re-engage with child care as restrictions lifted and we are confident we will see that again.

Even before COVID, workforce shortages where a challenge for the sector.

Like many industries, yours has been hit by the compounding effects of low unemployment and low migration combined with strong competition for jobs.

The National Skills Commission predicts that by 2025 we’ll need around an additional 13,300 educators and 8,200 Early Childhood Teachers.

No matter where I’ve travelled in Australian since being Education Minister, this is the number one issue raised with me from the early childhood sector.

I hear you loudly and clearly.

Pleasingly, earlier this year we saw that the workforce had recovered from the impacts of COVID in 2020, although the total number of educators and teachers remains slightly down on 2019 levels.

From the Commonwealth Government we’re addressing these issues by opening up opportunities for more people to come into the sector.

Our $1 billion commitment to JobTrainer is providing free or low fee training places, including for child care workers. Early data shows around 10% of JobTrainer enrolments have been in child care qualifications. 

We are also investing an additional $2.7 billion to extend and expand the Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements wage subsidy.

Under our Job Ready Graduates package the cost of an Early Learning Teaching tertiary qualification has been reduced by 42%.

And I am open to looking at other opportunities as well to upskill and keep people in this critical and rewarding sector.

The National Children’s Education and Care Strategy is progressing and will support the recruitment, retention, sustainability, and quality of the ECEC workforce.

Progressing this strategy was one of the important issues I discussed with my state and counterparts just last Friday at the Education Ministers Meeting.

Families and children are at the centre of all our policy efforts in early childhood education, and I know that they’re at the centre of all your efforts too.

It’s been a significant year and I am pleased that over the last couple of months I have been able to announce increasing support to Australian families.

As you know, we invest heavily in early childhood through the child care subsidy to reduce out-of-pocket costs for families and to increase parents’ workforce participation.

Around one million Aussie families receive child care subsidies with support targeted to those families on lower incomes.

We don’t apologise for targeting funding to those most in need.

In fact, during COVID the system has done exactly what it was designed to do - swinging into action with higher subsidies for families when their work and incomes were impacted. As household income reduced, so did families’ out of pocket costs for child care.

Last month, we passed legislation to provide more affordable child care for around 250,000 Australian families with more than one child under six by increasing the subsidy level by 30 percentage points (up to 95%) for a second or subsequent child in care.

Around 50 per cent of families will receive that highest level, 95% subsidy for their second or third child, paying just $6 a day on average for that care.

The average family on $110,000 a year with two kids in care four days a week will be better off by $95 a week.

A single parent on $65,000 a year with two kids in care four days a week will be better off by $42 a week. 

We’re also removing the annual cap, currently just for higher income families earning over $190,000 so that no family will have an annual cap on their subsidies. 

We’re doing everything we can to implement these changes as soon as possible.

Once implemented next year, we will be investing around $11 billion a year – almost double the investment than when we came to office.

It will allow more parents to return to work or pick up more hours.

It’s good for the employment of parents, particularly women, and good for the economy.

In the Budget we also committed to ongoing funding for preschool or kindergarten for all children in the year before school.

Over the past decade, governments together with you the sector have achieved universal access to 15 hours a week of education in that year before school.

It’s an incredible achievement and we should all feel proud. 

Early Childhood Australia, amongst others, have been calling for a longer-term approach to funding and we’ve been able to deliver on that this year.

What that means is that we’ve locked in that funding on an ongoing basis – $2 billion in the first four years – and we’ve linked that funding to a reform agenda focused on children.

Education in that year before school is delivered differently across Australia – in school‑based preschools, community‑based and standalone preschools, and in child care centres. All depending on families’ choice.

The 2020 Review of preschool funding found diversity in the sector was a strength.

So under our reforms, commonwealth funding will follow the child. The $1,340 we provide for each child will need to be passed on by the state to whatever setting the child uses for preschool.

The Review of preschool funding also found that it was time to shift our focus to attendance.

So, I’m proposing, the participation of children in the new agreement will be measured by attendance, rather than enrolment, with relevant state-by-state targets. It would not be reasonable to apply the same attendance target to children in Tasmania as the NT.

And we will also be developing an outcomes measure for the year before school so we can make sure the value-add of preschool is realised.

Today I am pleased to announce I have appointed an Expert Advisory Group to advise the Australian Government on the development of the outcomes measure.

The Group will be convened until mid next year with experts from early childhood education, including educators, as well as those who’ve worked in early childhood development and research.

It’s an important step, but not one that will be rushed, with implementation of an outcomes measure in 2025.

We are expecting it will continue to inform good practice and drive quality outcomes for kids, just like the Australian Early Development Census – the AEDC – informs us every three years at a population level from the view of a child’s first year in school.

I want to mention one more important area of work – Closing the Gap.

We know from the AEDC more Indigenous children start school developmentally vulnerable (41 per cent), compared to non-Indigenous children (20.4 per cent). However, the largest difference between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and non-Indigenous children continues to on be the language and cognitive skills domain – a critical indication of school readiness. 

We want all children to get the best start to school, because we know when kids are on track in those early years, they stay on track. 

Last month I announced new early childhood Closing the Gap measures with Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt.

The Government’s measures focus on scaling up existing initiatives and evidence-driven programs that we know work. Initiatives that lift participation and improve school readiness.

We are investing around $120 million, including to expand the Connected Beginnings program in 27 new sites and the Community Child Care Fund Restricted Program to invest in up to 20 additional mostly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-run child care services in remote and very remote communities.

A comprehensive, coordinated approach in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, services and organisations is critical.

I have a personal and real commitment to shifting the dial for Indigenous Australians through our education systems, and it starts in these early years.

Minister Wyatt and I are committed to seeing this investment realised in the preschool participation and school readiness Closing the Gap targets in years to come.

To conclude, I want to say thank you again for your commitment and enthusiasm for early childhood education.

It has been a tough 18 months for all of us, but I am optimistic for the future.

As our vaccination rates increase – as they are rapidly – we will see our lives return to more normality.

That’s not to say there won’t be any restrictions, but it will mean businesses open, more certainty for families and kids getting back to their friends and early childhood education.

Your conference theme - Young Citizens – The right to play, learn and be heard is more important than ever.

Thank you again for making the time to attend this conference and good luck across the next two days.