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[Australia] Early Childhood Education and Care in Australia

Summary:
The government of Australia is giving a lot of attention to Early Childhood Education and Care. The programs and goals are described and questions are raised about who their programs are reaching. Suggestions are made about focusing on the important issue of childhood care, taking place in the home.

Keywords: thinking about statistical information, economic factors, Australian government commitment, importance of home care

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>>Basic Data of Australia australia

Introduction and background

When getting information about the situation in another country, it's natural to compare it to your own. So a few facts might provide an interesting groundwork for readers outside Australia. Australia is a large country with many cultures spread throughout. Its land area is 2.9 million square miles and population 20.2 million, making its population density roughly 7ppm (people per square mile). In comparison, Japan's land area is about 1/20 the size of Australia (152,411 square miles) with a population of 127.5 million people, making its population density 836, over a hundred times that of Australia's.1 Unlike Japan, Australia encourages immigration of skilled migrants so there are many cultures living both side-by-side and in segregated groups.

There is a wealth of information available on the internet regarding ECEC (early childhood education and care) in Australia. The government itself explains their attempt to give adequate education and care to each child on one of their many websites relating to education:

The Office of Early Childhood Education and Child Care (OECECC) aims to achieve a nationally consistent, accessible, affordable and high quality early childhood education and child care system for all Australian children and families.2

This department, opened in March 2008 is responsible for:

delivering the Australian Government's key commitments on early childhood education and child care and guiding major policy reforms at a national level. ...

High quality early childhood education and child care plays an important role in improving educational and developmental outcomes for children. High quality, accessible and affordable child care also allows parents to participate in the workforce and the broader community.

To give all Australian children the best possible start in life, the OECECC delivers programs and initiatives that support both families and the early childhood education and child care sector."3

It's tempting to confuse statements of goals with reality. It's also easy to give statistics and make generalizations about a situation such as ECEC, but there are many factors that make each situation quite unique. Misunderstandings can easily arise from taking statistical data at face value. We always need to look behind the numbers and try to see how they apply to specific groups or individuals.

To give an example, it is often noted that Aboriginal people make up less than 1.7% of the Australian population. Yet this figure more than triples when looking at school age population in Queensland, one of the six states/territories of Australia.4 And there are communities and schools where the indigenous population figure would be closer to 90% and at times even 100%.

Even the term ECEC is can be confusing, implying that there is a natural separation between "care" and "education".

This distinction between care and education is misleading - children are learning constantly, regardless of the setting (Siraj-Blatchford, 2007). "Every moment in which an adult provides care to a young infant is a moment rich with learning" (Lally, 2007).5

For the purpose of this paper "childhood education" will refer to formal surrounding such as a pre-school center, whereas "childhood care" will refer to interactions taking place within a home or family situation. This is not just a matter of semantics but has real consequences when trying to understand a concept like ECEC as it relates to a varying population.

Having an awareness of the dangers of taking statistics at face value and in separating the terms "care" and "education" is important when reading government websites (a form of propaganda, like most websites). As will be described in this paper, the present Australian Government (under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd) expresses great concern about improving both child care and education, but we need to remember that such efforts have different effects in various communities.

 

General information about ECEC (with cautionary notes!)

Following is a short summary of the history of ECEC in Australia. Please note that in this writing "child care" also refers to a formal situation and all of this information could be considered under the category of "child education".

 
Preschool/kindergarten
  • Preschools/kindergartens for three and four year olds were first established in the late 19th century. After an initial period during which kindergarten services were embraced by educated middle class parents, provision of services became focused on the perceived need to 'redeem the children of working class parents'.
  • Preschools/Kindergartens became popular in the 1950s and 1960s as families sought enhanced preparation for school and a break from day to day parenting.
  • The Commonwealth Government commenced funding kindergartens/preschools in 1970s with balance provided by states and territories.
Child care
  • Child care evolved as charitable welfare services in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to improve health and nutrition of children from very poor or destitute families.
  • Women's workforce participation and the subsequent demands for access to child care have seen a shift in Commonwealth funding directions. Funding has switched to child care which accommodates typical working hours, rather than preschools/kindergartens offering primarily sessional programs....6

At the beginning of 2009, the Rudd Government created a special section devoted to Childhood Education and appointed Kate Ellis, the youngest woman ever elected to the Australian House of Representative, as Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth. Ten months later, at the end of October, her office issued a formal statement:

"Raising the quality of early childhood education and childcare is a priority for the Rudd Government too, that's why we're leading reform in partnership with the States and Territories," Ms Ellis said.

"We know that the first five years of a child's life shapes their future - in terms of their health, learning and social development - and we want to make that future bright.

The Rudd Government is investing almost $16 billion in early education and childcare over four years. ...

We're helping families meet the cost of child care and have increased the Child Care Benefit to cover 50% of parents' out of pocket costs."7

In addition to the above, The Rudd Government has made a series of announcements in the media, not only regarding allocation of new funds for childhood education, but also for providing new facilities and education for their staff.

The Australian Government will establish up to 260 additional Early Learning and Care Centres across Australia. The 260 additional centres will provide high quality and affordable integrated early learning and care in a long day care setting that that takes into account the specific requirements of the local community.8

On 14 October 2009 the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, and the Minister for Early Childhood Education and Child Care, Kate Ellis, announced 780 new university places in early childhood teaching....

Additional places will be offered in 2011 to bring the total number of extra early childhood university places to 1500, as promised at the last election.9

These announcements and activities show a strong commitment on the part of the government, but in order to see how the childhood care and education system affects all parents and children, other information must also be examined.10


Cultural factors

The differences between the aboriginal cultures and the dominant (in that it is their culture making the definitions of what is acceptable and not) white one, make it important to look beyond all statistics and generalizations. Statistics about some services being available to "Australian families" do not apply to Aboriginal families in exactly the same way as to non-Aboriginal ones.

One major difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous families is the way the family unit is viewed. Typically, Indigenous households include extended family members to a greater extent than non-Indigenous families and these individuals play a greater role in parenting and decision making. Grandparents and extended family members not only play an active role in child care, but also in education and passing on cultural knowledge, customs and family beliefs. Therefore, the concept of parenting in Indigenous communities not only relates to the child's immediate parents, but also extended family and kin. In some cases however, young parents who rely on their extended family for parenting support are also less likely to consider using other available services, such as health and community services.11

Differences can also be found to different degrees in other minority groups, such as various immigrant populations where extended families are often living together.

 

Economic factors

While culture is an important consideration in looking at ECEC in Australia, another important factor is economic. I visited a "Sun Smart Centre", run by C&K, a non-profit group which receives government support to run pre-school programs for 4-5 year olds.12 Most C&K staff have university degrees in childhood education, and the groups of children are limited to 22. The centers are essentially owned and operated by the community of parents in each location. The government pays 80% of teachers' salaries, so that the money received from each child's tuition goes for the other 20% of salaries and for equipment and facilities.

These pre-school centers seem like a wonderful system. Parents or guardians were able to receive up to half of the $19 per day tuition if they are working, studying or themselves involved with care of a child. And after a child finishes the pre-school program, they then enter into the "prep year" for 5-6 year olds which is part of each primary school. The following year they start the normal first grade program.

We can see the direction of the Australian Government is to have better educational services available to more children at an earlier age. Until 2 years ago, prep for 5-6 year olds (it was called "pre-school" then) was for 2 and a half days a week. Now it is a full-time curriculum and the government's attention is focused on improving the present pre-school program which unfortunately is not available to many children. Schools in areas servicing Aboriginal children are so far behind the national average that

The Council of Australian Governments has agreed to a number of targets to improve outcomes for Indigenous people, especially children. [one being that] ...every child will have access to a preschool program in the 12 months prior to full-time schooling by 201313

The very design of the pre-school program favors families in which one parent is available at home full-time with the child; that is, a non-working parent. Or else the parent needs to be self employed with a very flexible working schedule because the hours of attendance for most pre-school programs are from 9 AM to 2:30 PM for two days a week and then either a morning or afternoon for a third day. Children cannot be brought in early or kept later. In addition, the schools are closed 11 weeks a year. This schedule makes it extremely difficult for a working parent to have their child take part in this program. Additional care would definitely be required, putting an increased economic burden on a family in the lower income bracket. So this means that the people most likely to take advantage of these programs would be from the middle and upper economic groups.

There is however another type of child education receiving support from the Australian government: these are "learning centers" which accept children from 6 weeks of age through pre-school. They also offer before and after school care and vacation care. Parents/guardians of children are offered financial support to send their children to these centers if they are working, studying or themselves involved in childcare.

In researching the pre-school program and the learning center programs, certain things become clear. There is a great deal of difference between these two programs in the quality of care and education given to the children who attend. The numbers of children taking part in the learning centers are not limited. The teachers are usually not university graduates but are required to have either a one year certificate or a two year diploma in child care. Although children can have very positive experiences in that environment,14 we need to recognize that overcrowded conditions along with young experienced teachers, make it generally a more difficult environment for providing the kinds of support young people need.

Various problems, including low pay of teachers involved with childhood education, are being addressed by advocacy groups, such as "Big Steps", founded by the childcare union members.15 These groups are putting pressure on the government to make improvements to the system. Such groups feel that they have been able to affect government policies and the Big Steps site notes:

Government's reform is improving education services for children. They [the government] have committed $533 million to bring university-educated teachers into centres to deliver fifteen hours of preschool education to all four year olds.16

But in spite of what is being done to improve "childhood education", there will still be great differences in the area of "childhood care." Australia has a large immigrant population from all over the world. Each culture has a variety of attitudes and practices regarding raising children, all of which affect how their children will adapt to Australian culture and the future. And there is the Indigenous populating which, like native peoples in other countries, is still struggling to overcome centuries of disempowerment and discrimination. "Despite government promises to reduce indigenous disadvantage, the latest two-yearly study from the Federal Government's Productivity Commission shows little or no improvement in many areas of social and economic inequality."17

This wide range of cultures results in a wide range of theories and methods of caring for children. Within each culture is a further range of differences arising from economic and parental education levels. All these different groups and sub-groups make it difficult to make general accurate comments about Australian early childhood education and care.

 

Personal reaction

I believe that the government of Australia has great concern about Childhood Education and is backing up that concern with financial and educational support. This will have positive effect, particularly for the middle class. But regarding the issues of child care, I think that most of this takes place in the home from parents or guardians and should come before formal programs. The provision of a stable environment, economic security, and support for health care are all necessary.

In general, the health care system of Australia is good but still the life expectancy of Aboriginal people is 16-17 years less than a non-Aboriginal person born at the same time18 and the infant mortality rate is "2 to 3 times higher".19 For Aboriginal families, the quality of life behind these statistics certainly affects the kind of care the children receive. And this, more than the numbers of new centers or teachers, is the real issue of childhood care which we must be concerned about.

The Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne points out in one of their papers:

It is the quality and nature of the relationship/s children experience through- out their day, regardless of the setting, that are critical for children's development. Children learn constantly and do not differentiate whether they are in a setting for care or learning. Therefore every person who interacts with a child, regardless of their professional background, needs to know how to attend to and meet that child's care and learning needs.20

I believe that if the environment is not secure, if health and financial concerns are not guaranteed, then all the learning centers and teachers in the world won't help our children grow well. If the above are present, and children can grow up being listened to and respected, then positive development will take place. It may not be the kind of growth that can be measured on tests, but it is the kind of growth that can be measured in one's life.

In the excellent article "Conflict and Cooperation during Early Childhood", which is part of this same series on Early Childhood Education and Care, Robert D. Strom writes:

Some observers believe that increasing the amount of government subsidies represents the key to providing better early childhood education. In our view an effective solution requires more comprehensive changes. Parents and caregivers of young children should know the psychological and physical aspects of development. With proper training, caregivers are more inclined to accept the social limitations of children, respect the need for privacy of dominion play, preserve mutual rights, and show them how to solve conflicts in creative ways.21

According to the latest statistics for Australia (2006), more than half the mothers of young children ages 0-4 are working.22 Learning centers are taking in 6 week old children. How wonderful it would be if mothers or fathers could have financial security to be able to tend to their own children during early years of development.

And if the Australian Government could give more attention to helping parents and communities support each other and their young children at home during their important developmental years, this too would be a valuable step. Happily, the following media release appeared recently:

On 18 October 2009, the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Child Care and Youth, Kate Ellis, announced the partner organisations who will deliver the Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters in 2010.

The program is expanding to include additional locations for 2010 as part of the Australian Government's $32.5 million investment over five years.

The two-year home-based program is designed to help parents to engage their preschool aged children in learning, and strives to maximise children's chances of a successful transition to school. It offers home tutoring, books and educational resources, with a strong focus on fostering parental participation.23

Now there will be increased attention given - hopefully not only focusing on what the government announcement calls "learning" and "transition to school", but even more importantly on "care" and creating calm supportive environments in which young children can grow.

 


  1. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0934666.html
  2. http://www.deewr.gov.au/EarlyChildhood/OECECC/Pages/home.aspx
  3. ibid.
  4. http://www.ccypcg.qld.gov.au/pdf/publications/reports/snapshot2008/Snapshot2008_2%20Key%20statistics.pdf
  5. From http://www.rch.org.au/emplibrary/ccch/PB8_EYCE.pdf, published in 2007, part of the homepage of Centre for Community Child Health The Royal Children's Hospital, Victoria Australia
  6. ibid.
  7. http://alp.org.au/media/1009/msece290.php
  8. http://www.mychild.gov.au/additionallearning.htm
  9. http://www.deewr.gov.au/EarlyChildhood/Pages/news_UniPlacesAnnounced.aspx
  10. This system is quite complicated and differs from state to state as well as place to place. As my experience in Australia is limited, there may be errors or omissions. They are certainly unintentional and I would be grateful if anyone would point them out. For readers with interests in a particular aspect of ECEC I recommend reading books, researching internet writings and most importantly talking to a wide range of people who have raised children in this country.
  11. http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/indigenous_parents.html
  12. For further information, visit http://www.candk.asn.au
  13. http://www.deewr.gov.au/Indigenous/EarlyChildhood/Pages/default.aspx
  14. My neighbor recently told me that her 2 year old boy attends a local learning center and has had a very positive experience. She was surprised when visiting him one day to see that as he walked through various rooms of the center, different staff would call out to him, "Hi Angus!" She told me, "I was really impressed to see that they all knew his name."
  15. http://www.lhmu.org.au/campaigns/big-steps-in-childcare
  16. http://www.lhmu.org.au/files/Big-Steps-summary.pdf
  17. http://www.theage.com.au/national/child-abuse-six-times-higher-for-aborigines-20090702-d6lc.html written by Yuko Narushima and Katharine Murphy appearing on "The Age" online publication on July 3, 2009
  18. http://www.aihw.gov.au/mortality/life_expectancy/indig.cfm
  19. http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/indigenous_parents.html
  20. http://www.rch.org.au/emplibrary/ccch/PB8_EYCE.pdf Policy Brief No.8, 2007
  21. http://www.childresearch.net/PROJECT/ECEC/northamerica/usa/report09_01.html
  22. http://www.ccypcg.qld.gov.au/pdf/publications/issues/issue_four_paper.pdf
  23. http://www.deewr.gov.au/EarlyChildhood/LatestNews/Pages/HomeInterProg.aspx
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Hillel Weintraub
Hillel Weintraub taught at Doshisha International Jr/Sr High School (DIHS) in Kyoto from 1980-2001, taking a 3 year break in the middle to live in the Boston area where he was part of the teaching and learning communities of MIT's Media Lab and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Hillel was one of the pioneers of using computers in education in Japan and in 1981 created an international group of teachers, parents and business people who were interested in exploring ways that technology could be used to support learning that would be meaningful, engaging and empowering for young people. While at Doshisha International he also taught courses in media and communication at Doshisha University and Doshisha Women's College, and, with other members of DIHS faculty, planned and developed the Communication Center, a unique combination of library, museum, theater and computer spaces. He also helped design various aspects of a new science university in Hokkaido, Future University - Hakodate, where he was a professor from 2001-2005. He is presently living in the mountains of Australia, where he is writing and running a small gallery and press. Hillel can be contacted at hilleljw@yahoo.com
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