Release type: Speech


Transforming Early Learning


The Hon Dr Anne Aly MP
Minister for Early Childhood Education
Minister for Youth

MINISTER ANNE ALY: Well, good morning, everyone. As you can see, I get very excited about conferences and symposiums, the inner nerd will come out today. But it’s just wonderful to be here with you today surrounded by so many passionate early childhood educators and sector representatives. And thank you so much to Jane for inviting me to speak this morning. It is still morning, isn’t it? Yes it is. It’s been a long week!

Can I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

Today is a really good day to start asking some big questions about what the future of early childhood education looks like. And I know we’re all supposed to be thinking about 2040, the year 2040, in this room today. I was just saying that the only thing I can think about in 2040 is being a retired grandmother with purple hair and wearing stripey pants and living in Byron Bay. But that’s my dream for myself. But I also have a dream and a vision, as I know you all do for early childhood education and care.

It's such a privilege to have this portfolio in government. And it’s a privilege for me because my personal experience with early childhood education and care and the importance that it played in my life as a young single mother of two children who was in a situation of living in poverty and needed access to good quality early childhood education and care to be able to return to education, return to work and lift myself and my children out of poverty. But also the role that it played in my children’s’ lives in being a consistent, structured part of their day during a time of a fairly tumultuous time in my life and in their early years.

And I am eternally grateful – eternally grateful – to the early childhood educators who cared and educated my two children and made them – played a big role in making them the men that they are today. Even though they still call me everything time they need something!

So, yes, so it is important we ask these big questions in order to be able to develop some really creative solutions to issues that the early childhood education sector faces today but also to have an optimistic and positive vision for what it can be and where we can go.

We have a really unique opportunity here in Australia right now to build a world-leading early childhood education and development system, one that gives every Australian child the best possible start in life. And when I first took on this portfolio and when I first met with the department, the department said to me, “What do you want to see? What’s your vision? What’s your driving principle in early childhood education?” And I said that it would be that no child born into disadvantage, no matter what that disadvantage is, should have to carry that disadvantage through their life. And this is where early childhood education is such a vital part of what we do as a society and a child’s development and growth.

So in my mind what does an early childhood education system look like that is going to achieve that kind of vision. Well, first and foremost, it is high quality and affordable. It’s a system that provides all children with access to research-informed early learning programs that are proven to deliver results. And I know that the Front Project – and I’ve been looking at some of the research projects that you’re doing to inform delivery as well as other stakeholders in the room and the research that they’re doing. And it’s really playing a big role in ensuring that the quality of early childhood education is driven by results, is driven by viable and revocable research. And as somebody who eats data for breakfast, it’s something that I’m really committed to – that everything that we do must be data and research driven.

Secondly, it’s a flexible and responsive system that responds to the needs of children and the needs of families. It recognises the role of parents and it provides support to those parents to make informed decisions about their children’s education and care. I can’t stress that responsiveness enough. Too often when we sit in Parliament House developing policy we develop it in ways that is great for a lot of people but that can have some adverse impacts on others.

So a flexible system that’s responsive to the contexts of children in First Nations communities, that’s responsive to the contexts of children who don’t speak English as a first language at home, that’s responsive to children in rural and regional communities, that’s responsive to the needs of children from disadvantaged communities, that’s responsive to the needs of children with special or additional needs, that’s responsive to the needs of children with complex family issues. This is the kind of system that we have the opportunity – the opportunity – to have a vision for and the opportunity to develop. And that’s something I hope to do with you over the coming years.

In relation to that, and thirdly, it’s a system that’s inclusive and gives all children the chance to succeed regardless of their background and their circumstances. Fourthly – and this is an important one – it has a high-quality, sustainable workforce which can support children through their learning journey. And I recognise that there are challenges in that at the moment, and this seems to be – many of those challenges seem to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, as they should be. And I’ll talk a little bit about those in a minute.

Fifthly, it is evidence based and continually improves in line with the latest research. That continuous improvement I think is a very important piece – how do we build in continuous improvement into the system. And, finally, early childhood educators must receive the recognition they deserve for their significant contribution to a child’s learning and development.

Now, I had the pleasure of having the opportunity to attend the Early Childhood Australia Conference not that long ago, and I was blown away by the PhD research. In fact, I asked the PhD researchers to send me their thesis, which gave Craig, my advisor conniptions, he’s like “oh “what can I get” [indistinct]. Okay, it’s fine – I read them for fun. I used to say to my PhD students, “Only three people will ever read your PhD thesis and they’re all paid to do so”. And I really was blown away by the fact that you are already a professional workforce. Show me another workforce that has that many people undertaking research, that many stakeholders undertaking really high-quality, informative research, so many people who are dedicated to professional development and improvement, and who take that back and put that into practice.

In my lifetime I’ve attended millions is an exaggeration – but, you know, close to, hundreds, let’s say hundreds, of conferences, seminars, policy dialogues, and it takes a lot to impress me. Let’s just say that at a conference but I was so impressed by just the demonstration of professionalism and the level of professionalism at that conference. What we need to do is get that recognition – get that recognition to match the level of professionalism that is already there in the sector.

So that’s the early childhood vision of the future that I believe in – it’s high quality and affordable, it’s flexible and responsive, it’s inclusive, it has a high-quality, sustainable workforce, it’s evidence based and has continuous improvement built into it, and early childhood educators are recognised for the professionals that they are and the significant contribution that they make to a child’s life, to our families, to our society, to our economy.

So let’s just stop there for a minute and take stock of where we are now and how we’re progressing towards that vision. Because I think that’s where I think you all come in. And what I really want to get out of today is how do we work together to achieve my vision and your vision, how do we bring all of that together and how do we work together on making that a reality by 2040, and hopefully we can before then, because I think it’s long overdue, right? And how do we take advantage of how to capitalise the incredible opportunities that we have right now to make this happen. To make Australia the world’s best early childhood education system.

So a few things that we have to address and a few things that we have addressed, and the first one is access and affordability. I’m pleased to say that this week the Bill that would address access and affordability has passed the House. And that bill, as you may well know, makes early childhood education and care more affordable for 1.26 million Australian families across Australia by increasing the childcare subsidy rate.

Under that legislation the maximum childcare subsidy rate will lift to 90% for families with a combined income of $80,000 or less and will be increased for families earning less than $530,000. And, you know, while there’s been a lot of talk about it being more affordable for families and helping with the cost of living for families and helping women’s participation and encouraging women’s workforce participation or caregivers workforce participation, make no mistake – the children are at the centre of this. The ability for children to engage more often with life-changing early childhood education and care is really what is at the heart of this and really the greatest benefit in my mind that this legislation brings.

Part of that legislation which I’m particularly proud of is that it boosts the base level of subsidised early education for First Nations children to 36 hours per fortnight. We know that that change will benefit around 6600 First Nations families, and it will go a long way to helping us in our continued efforts to close the gap.

The second challenge, I think, to getting to this vision is really around professional recognition for the sector. And I’ve already spoken to you about the professionalism that I have come to know that exists already in this sector – the wealth of knowledge, the wealth of experience, the passion and the commitment. I don’t think – you know, I’m used to conferences that are really mostly people who’ve worked in national security, law enforcement and engineering. And there is no comparison to the passion for the work that you do and your understanding of the importance of the work that you have. We need to lift that in the national dialogue. We need to be talking about the importance of early childhood education and care whenever we talk about families, whenever we talk about children, whenever we talk about the economy, whenever we talk about wellbeing, whether it’s individual or community or social or national wellbeing. We need to put early childhood education and the recognition of early childhood educators and the important work they do at the centre of all of that.

And we’ve made steps towards putting early childhood education on the national agenda. At the national cabinet meeting in August the nation’s first Ministers discussed the early childhood education sector and committed - committed - to creating a vision for the sector in recognition of the integral role it plays for the nation. All education and Early Childhood Education Ministers from every state and nationally have been tasked with finding ways in which the jurisdictions can work together to support better outcomes across the sector.

It was also a key topic of discussion at the Jobs and Skills Summit that the Government hosted at the beginning of September, and it was acknowledged that as a workforce the early childhood education sector enabled children’s learning and development and are an essential support to parents and parental employment.

In his opening address to the summit the Prime Minister actually noted that early childhood education and care workers are not only doing a vital job in the face of pressures and workforce shortages but are also making it possible for millions of other people to do their jobs too.

All of this comes back to that key point of recognition. Connected to that is the one thing that we can’t all ignore – and that is the workforce issues and the workforce pressures. I think, you know, in order to be able to achieve that vision that we all have and that we share we really cannot move forward if we don’t address that part about a sustainable workforce in early childhood education.

Now, when I was at the Early Childhood Australia Conference at the closing remarks they put up the conference findings from I think the very first conference, which I think was 1988. It would have been ’88 or ’89. I’m sure people in this room were there as well. And the findings of that conference talked about a workforce crisis. The finding of that conference – it’s all there in black and white and print – talked about workforce shortages. It talked about difficulties in retaining staff. It talked about difficulties attracting early childhood educators. It talked about difficulties and the attrition rates of people who start a degree or a qualification in early childhood education. So these are not new issues.

But the issue has been in my mind been neglected for so long by those who have the ability to make change that it has been compounded and compounded and compounded. And it is no exaggeration to say that it is now at the point of crisis.

It’s not something that governments can solve alone, but there are some things that we have done that can assist, and there are many more things that we can do together to work towards addressing it.

Some of the things that we have done, just this week our budget delivered 1469 additional university places specifically for early education teachers. The university places are there and 465,000 fee-free TAFE places for industries that are facing critical shortages. And that includes early childhood education and care.

We also this week committed – well, from the very beginning we’ve been committed to wage growth, and in the short time that we have been in government we have successfully argued for a pay rise for the lowest paid workers in Australia, changed the Fair Work Act to allow for multi-employer bargaining, and also enabled the Fair Work Commission to take actions to address the gender pay gap, which will greatly benefit industries and sectors which are predominantly female-dominated. And, as we know, that is the early childhood education sector.

We’re also looking to migration to help ease workforce shortages and expanding our migration program. And I’ve had discussions around how do we make and attract early childhood educators and make it address at least in the short term some of those workforce shortages by bringing in skilled migration.

And, of course, we have the National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy Implementation and Evaluation Plan – I always have to take a breath because it’s such a long title, and there’s no acronym that works for it. I’ve tried. As you all know, because many of you have had a hand in this plan that was developed in partnership with the sector, the plan outlines 21 really practical actions to support that goal of attraction and retention, quality and sustainability of the workforce in the long term.

So these are all just starts. They’re just starts. And I’m really keen to see what comes out of today, but also to keep working with each and every one of you to keep following the research findings that are coming out of all the research the Front Project is currently undertaking and looking at how they can inform how we move forward in early childhood education and care.

But I just want to really end on this note – to reiterate and emphasise with you that what we have before us is an opportunity. Yes, we have challenges. We have challenges. But in my short time as the Minister, the passion, the enthusiasm, the commitment, the professionalism, the knowledge, the skills, the experience that I have seen in your sector gives me hope – gives me hope – that together we can overcome those challenges and achieve a world class early childhood education system that puts Australian children at the forefront, at the top of the world.

We can do this. We can do this. We can do this for our children. We can do this for our grandchildren – my grandchildren, I hope if my boys give me any grandchildren, for our great grandchildren and for all of Australia’s children now and into the future. And I hope that you’ll join me on this journey and that hand in hand we’ll get to not just 2040 but to 2040 and beyond. Thank you.