STATEMENTS BY SENATORS;Tasmania: Early Childhood Education – 09 Aug 2017

Early in my working career, I was employed as an early childhood educator. I worked in childcare centres and then I ran my own family day care business. While the profession used to be simply referred to as ‘child care’, it was in those times that the title ‘early childhood educator’ was adopted. It was adopted to recognise that there is a much broader role for workers in this industry. We are not just carers but also skilled educators who help young children to learn and develop. We understand that learning begins from birth and that those who provide professional care for children while their parents are working or studying have a huge responsibility for that learning. As skilled professional educators, we understand a great deal about childhood development. As a former early childhood educator with over a decade of experience, I feel qualified to make some comments about the transition from early childhood education to school.

There’s a debate going on right now in my home state of Tasmania about a state government proposal to lower the school starting age by half a year. This proposal is a bad idea for many, many reasons. It’s bad for schools, it’s bad for the early childhood education and care sector, and, most importantly, it’s bad for the children. The Tasmanian government education minister, Jeremy Rockliff, claimed that their proposal would bring Tasmania’s school starting age into line with other jurisdictions. This is simply not true. An analysis of school starting ages commissioned by the Australian Childcare Alliance shows that if the proposal went ahead Tasmania would have the lowest compulsory school starting age in Australia. This would be despite having the highest precompulsory school enrolment in Australia—that is, an enrolment in what we call kindergarten of 98 per cent, equal only to the ACT. While Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have similar compulsory school starting ages to Tasmania, their preschool/kinder programs are offered through early education and care services, not in schools.

Under this proposal, Tasmanian children would enter a formal school environment a full year before most of their mainland counterparts. Unlike early childhood education, school-based kindergarten programs do not provide 3½-year-olds with the kind of play-based learning that they require. I want to make it clear that I’m not criticising Tasmania’s highly qualified and hard-working teachers, but they’ve studied and gained their teaching qualifications in the expectation that they would be teaching a particular age cohort—that is, children who are ready for school, not children who belong in early education and care services. Now, a lot of people think there is little difference between the ages 3½ and four, but this is a period of rapid development for children, especially when you consider those developmental changes across a classroom of 15 or 20 students. In Tasmania, it’s quite often more. This presents the challenge of teachers having to supervise more young children who, because of their age, have a shorter attention span or cannot go to the toilet unattended—tasks which early childhood educators are trained to deal with.

If the government’s proposal goes ahead, teachers will need more resources to help them in the classrooms. Granted, the state government has allocated funding for this initiative, but it’s funding that could be better directed to initiatives that make a positive difference to educational outcomes. For example, why not direct the funding to reducing teacher-to-student ratios, providing more one-on-one support for children with disability or learning difficulties, or reinstating pathway planners? So, while the lower school starting age proposal would put a strain on Tasmania’s education budget, it will also have a devastating impact on the early childhood education and care sector. Taking thousands of children out of early childhood education and placing them in formal schooling will lead to many childcare centres becoming unviable and being forced to close, particularly in regional areas. Analysis by the sector’s peak body, Early Childhood Australia, found that upwards of 500 early childhood educator jobs could be lost as a result of this proposal. Lowering the age that children go to school would also lower the average age of children enrolled in child care. And because there is a requirement for higher staff ratios for younger children, childcare fees would increase significantly. Modelling by the Australian Childcare Alliance shows that fees could as much as double in some centres due to their high fixed costs and the loss of this more profitable age group. While those parents whose children have entered school early might save on childcare fees, the cost will be borne by those parents whose children remain enrolled in child care.

I’ve mentioned the impact this proposal would have on schools and early childhood and care sector, but an even more important reason I oppose this policy is that it is just simply bad for the children. Prominent author and child psychologist Steve Biddulph wrote in an opinion editorial in the Mercury of Hobart last year that research overwhelmingly supports a later school starting age of around six or seven years of age. He pointed out that around 88 per cent of the world starts school at around this age, and that:

Australia as a whole is out of step with the world, and our State Government is seeking to make that worse.

Among the reasons against starting children at school too young is that they find sitting at a desk for long periods uncomfortable, and their motor skills and executive function are generally less well-developed than older children. Mr Biddulph’s view is backed up by a study from Stanford University, which found that children who started kindergarten at the age of six had much better self-control than those who were enrolled at five. In Queensland, suspensions of children who are five years old and under have doubled in three years—suspensions! And more children are being referred to support services for ADHD.

The Tasmanian government’s proposal has been roundly condemned, not only by childhood development academics and experts like Mr Biddulph but by the early childhood education sector and many parents and teachers. With the weight of evidence against this proposal and so much opposition to it, I cannot understand why the Tasmanian government is persisting with this misguided and ill-thought-out plan. The only possible reason I can think of is that they have invested so much political capital in it that they have no dignified way of retreating from it completely. Minister Rockliff has at least managed a partial retreat, I will give him that. In August last year, the education minister changed his proposal to allow parents the choice of whether to send their children to school early. This is possibly worse than the original plan. I know the idea of giving choice to parents sounds like a good one, but it places an incredible burden on them. Some parents may feel quite comfortable about making the decision, but many others have told me that they are already feeling anxious about it. They are asking themselves: ‘What do I base my decision on? Where do I seek advice about what’s right for my child, and what if I get it wrong?’ If they get it wrong, it can have huge social impacts on those children. In particular, low-income families may be influenced in their decision by financial pressures, as has been pointed out by educational psychologist Professor Andrew Martin from the University of Sydney. As Professor Martin said:

Low socio-economic students may be disproportionately more likely to be entered early so their parents, for example, can get to work.

The results of different parents making different decisions will be classrooms with children more than a year apart in age, and the gap will be even wider in combined prep and kinder classes, where children could be up to three years apart in their abilities.

In the early years, children progress in their learning and development very rapidly. It is clearly unacceptable to have three-year-old children in a classroom with children six years of age. How could one teacher or even two teachers possibly supervise a class of children spanning ages three to six? And let’s remember, a lot of three-year-olds still have a sleep throughout the day. How could they possibly give those children the attention they need, tailoring various curriculum programs to each age group? Without individual attention, this age gap will compound the problem of children becoming anxious and disengaged, because they struggle to keep up with the older peers. This age gap and disadvantage could potentially continue throughout a child’s entire school life.

The Tasmanian state Labor opposition is firmly against this proposal, and I believe their position is in step with the majority of the Tasmanian community. This opposition was reconfirmed last month when I spoke to, and seconded, a motion carried unanimously by Labor’s state conference against lowering the school starting age. I cannot imagine many Australians would agree that a three-and-a-half-year-old child is old enough to begin school. Since the government is ignoring the community and ignoring the evidence, the power is in the hands of Tasmania’s Legislative Council, so I hope they’re listening and I hope, for the sake of Tasmania’s children, that they make the right decision. I will continue to speak up against this ill-considered and short-sighted proposal until it is dropped by the government. (Time expired)