A new early childhood development system for Australia

A new early childhood development system for Australia

Jay Weatherill
2 July 2020

In this webinar, Jay Weatherill discussed the opportunities for system reform in early childhood development post Covid-19.

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Audio transcript

Audio transcript (edited)

MS HOLLONDS: Hello everyone, welcome to our fifth webinar in our Families in Focus series. My name's Anne Hollonds and I'm the Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I'd like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which I'm speaking today and that's the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and to pay my respect to their elders past and present and emerging and to all the elders on the lands – of the lands on which you're participating today right across Australia and often we get participants from New Zealand and elsewhere in the world as well, so to all of those elders as well.

The Families in Focus month has been a great opportunity for us to hear from some of the keynote speakers to get their insights, the keynote speakers who would have been presenting at our conference this month, if it wasn't for the pandemic. And of course, as many of you know, our conference has now been rescheduled to June in 2021 and you can already register for that via the AIFS website and there will be much more information coming on that shortly. Today we're very privileged to have with us Jay Weatherill. He's the Chief Executive Officer of Thrive by Five, which is responsible for delivering the early childhood agenda for the Minderoo Foundation.

Jay was Premier of South Australia for six and a half years and Minister for 16 years in portfolios including early childhood. He holds law and economics degrees from the University of Adelaide. Jay is an Industry Professor at the University of South Australia, an Ambassador for Reggio Children and shares an Early Childhood Research Project, for the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, also known as ARACY. Jay's webinar today is entitled 'A New Early Childhood Development Agenda for Australia'. After Jay shares his observations on this topic with us, I will handover to you as participants for a Q&A session direct with Jay. I'll see your questions up on the board and we'll put them to Jay and we'll get through as many of those questions as we can.

And I suggest you start thinking about your questions now and get them up and keep them succinct. Go to the Go To Webinar platform for the questions space. If you get them up early, you're probably more likely to have them be answered by Jay, so we don't run out of time. So, without further ado, I'm going turn to Jay now and say thank you Jay for joining us all the way from Perth.

MR WEATHERILL: Thank you for having me.

MS HOLLONDS: It's nice that in a pandemic we can still connect safely in this way.

MR WEATHERILL: Excellent.

MS HOLLONDS: And we're very pleased that you've been able to join us, so thank you very much. So I'm going to start by asking you Jay, if you could tell us a bit about what Thrive by Five is and why you think we need an early childhood development system for Australia?

MR WEATHERILL: Well thank you Anne and thanks for this opportunity and just to acknowledge the critical role that AIFS plays in organising the thinking in this area and it's a really important institution and thank you for the invitation. I also acknowledge that we're gathering all around the world on traditional lands and we acknowledge elders past, present and emerging.

So yes, Thrive by Five it's the - really it's a – there's a long history actually, Nicola and Andrew Forrest have been involved in philanthropy for about 20 years or so and the first thing they set up was the Australian Children's Trust. So there's been a continuing interest in children really through the whole time, but this most latest iteration is called Thrive by Five and as the name suggests it's about early childhood development. It has been focusing up to this point on demonstration projects, like CAThS, a school in Western Australia, a partnership with the West Australian Government called 'The Early Years Initiative', thought leadership, publishing in partnership with Telethon Kids Institute, a whole range of evidence papers and a parenting app, called, 'Bright Tomorrows', which sets out all the experience-based brain development tips for parents. So it operates in a range of ways and it has also been involved in advocacy to government. And probably the most significant push there was the cost of late intervention report that was launched last year, which showed that the costs of late intervention can be estimated conservatively at $15 billion per annum.

But I think like all of us, there's a point where this foundation has reached the view, as I think many of us have, that putting high-quality arguments in front of decision-makers, hasn't got us very far. We've had some improvements of course over the years, but it remains an undeveloped question. And I suppose that the question you ask, why do we need a new early childhood development system for Australia, well one answer is to say that we don't actually have a very coherent system, what we have is a series of systems and it (indistinct) and they're disconnected and they're sub-systems. And I would argue that there are at least five, there are probably many more, but there's childcare, which is more an incident of employment policy.

There's child protection, which of course is about protecting children. There's infant and maternal health, which is connected to the health system. There's pre-school which is very much connected to the education system. And then the whole plethora of community and family services that support families and children. Each of them are delivered by different agencies. Each of them have their own funders, regulators, researchers, in some cases unions and providers and there is not necessarily the connection that we'd like to see, which puts children at the centre that creates an early childhood system. I suppose we want to start with a bit of a caveat, two things, first thing is that I'm not an early childhood development expert. All that I know has really been learnt from people like you Anne and the others that are on this call and most recently summarised in the great work that's done by ARACY, through their nest and of course expressed at the most recent summit, where there was a series of priorities that were identified for early childhood development.

So I don't know more than really many people that are listening to this call. But what I do I think, understand, is how public policymakers think. And what I'm about to advance is nothing particularly new, but it's more about how we construct it in a way which is likely to influence public policy makers, to actually make the changes that are necessary. Because I think, everybody on this call would share the view that the first five years of life are just so profound for the development of every citizen and how they're going to progress, their wellbeing, their health, their happiness, their learning trajectory, their behavioural trajectory.

And in aggregate, it really represents the future of our country. So the general level of capability and prosperity of our country, as well as the happiness and wellbeing of our citizens is deeply connected to the experiences that occur in those first five years and I know everybody here understands that. But what we know about that and what we do as a country, is quite different. So there's a big disconnect between what we know and what we do. So, each of these sub-systems that I mentioned, infant and maternal health.

I mean, we know what works, we've got fantastic programs like universal home visiting programs, trials – other program called, 'Right at Home', which demonstrates the effectiveness of those programs but they're not rolled out, they start, they're evaluated, they're successful, but they're not made ubiquitous across the whole system. Childcare, we know that there is inconsistent quality, something like 20 per cent of childcare centres don't meet quality standards. We know that they’re incredibly expensive, um, where some of the costs are difficult for many parents to cope with – and the costs are growing at a faster rate than almost any consumer item, faster than electricity or private health insurance.

Pre-school, presently only generally available to four year old’s. Victoria of course, trialling, are rolling out three year old pre-school. But we know from the Mitchell Institute report two years are better than one, that this would be an important thing to make available for all children. Family support services are scattered across agencies and jurisdictions. And we see a phenomena of numerous pilots which succeed and then banish from view, because they're not universally supported. And what we know is that we don't have a set of arrangements where there is any accountability. There's no single level of government, with sufficient, or single minister in any level of government that has sufficient weight in the cabinet, who is responsible for our accountants.

Our child protection services are incredibly expensive, without delivering outstanding outcomes and in South Australia, we did some work, which was led by the Australian Centre for Child Protection, which analysed this finding that one in four children will come to the attention of private child protection authorities before the age of 10 years. And initially, there was some – the view might have been that that would have been through an open notification, but frighteningly we find that, you know, the overwhelming majority of those cases were children who were at real risk of serious harm. So we had a significant child protection epidemic that faces our community.

So the extent of the problem we're facing in early childhood development is greater than some of these disparate systems. So these sub-systems act largely in isolation, each with their own separate cultures, biases and tendencies and they all report to different ministers in different parliaments. What we do know is that, if we're able to create a system that actually had children at its centre, it was governed by the notion that every child has a right to flourish. Every child, every parent, no matter how well prepared finds the experience of early childhood challenging and needs a system that works for them.

If we're able to look at a workforce that had the skills and qualifications and remuneration, we would be able to solve these problems. They are solvable, there are plenty of people that have advanced solutions. And they are solutions that need to be found because we know obviously the trajectory for our children is profoundly affected by those first years. So what I want to talk about now is just some of the characteristics about what we think that system would look like. And I'm not seeking to describe in every respect the childhood development system. I'm focusing on those elements which are critically important to build the coalition necessary for the change that we think is needed.

So we think there are five key characteristics. One is quality. The second is universal access. The third is integrated services. The fourth is connected to the education system and the fifth is community-led. All these standards we think are critically important for the way in which we imagine what the early years should look like. When we consider that we do have those 20 per cent of childcare centres or early learning centres which don't meet quality standards, it's really unacceptable that that – we permit that to occur. And invariably we're seeing that those quality standards are often in circumstances – not being met in circumstances where we find vulnerable communities. So we're seeing the communities that need the best services are not necessarily getting those best services, in fact, it's more likely that they're getting a lesser quality service. Not universally but that it's generally a pattern we see across our nation.

So that's not just the physical environment of those services, it's what is actually on offer in those service systems. So we have a current system that doesn't remunerate, educate as well, it doesn't encourage them to enhance their qualifications. And this is a – it's impossible to grapple with quality without looking at the remuneration of the sector. It's impossible to grapple with quality without looking at the training of the skills, acquisitioned for the people that are spending their time working with our youngest children. The second is universal access. We believe that high-quality early learning centres need to be universally accessible. And we've had of course, little experiment with that recently, with the Commonwealth Government having to switch off the existing childcare system and put in place, albeit with a range of problems, a system which was said to be brief.

Now, of course, there are many elements of that system that run satisfactorily. But what we did see was a number of vulnerable families taking up early learning for the first time. And this should be universally available. We shouldn't have essentially, early learning offerings and the profound opportunity that gives to support children to develop, but also parents to actually be connected and supported. It should not depend on their relationship to the employment system. At the moment we have essentially a system of early learning, which is very much grounded in workforce participation policy. But profoundly, it should be about early childhood development and not just about workforce participation. It can be about that of course and it's important about that but it shouldn't be a barrier to access to that system.

Thirdly, integrated services. The whole notion of children being at the centre and services integrating that whole of the government, I've heard that phrase used hundreds, probably thousands of times over the last couple of decades that I've been associated with public policy in this area, incredibly easy to say, very hard to do. And often this is for good reasons. I mean, each of these sub-systems have their own accountabilities to their own ministers. They have their own resources. They have their own cultures.

But bringing them together in one place so that the services can connect and actually be suitable and accessible to parents and children, is a critically important element we think of a system. A welcoming place that provides information and support all the way from pregnant mothers through to them, during their parenting role, connecting. When you connect up the maternal nurse system, where you connect up the family support system and of course the pre-school and early learning systems. All in a place ideally associated with the place which is accessible. And that brings me to the next element which is connected to the education system.

And the important caveat here to remember is that we don't want to – by saying this, imply that we want to schoolify early childhood development services. It's critically important that this is age-appropriate and connected with the developmental needs of a child at that time. But we need a system of accountability so that we don’t have this duck shoving that occurs at the moment. Where one level of government or one agency shifts responsibility for outcomes in relation to children. We have to find a place where we can actually connect up the accountabilities and ensure that they sit within a service system which is coherent. It could be another system, but the way in which our nation is organised, is that there is a school in every neighbourhood.

There is also the opportunity for us to take advantage of the obvious interests that the school system has in children arriving at school, ready to learn. We see so many teachers, you ask any sort of primary school teacher about what are the most significant determinants of the progression of the child and they'll say it's the state in which that child arrives on the first day. Now, there is a massive interest in schools to actually make connections with the children, right from birth and preferably before, to provide the sort of service, supporting an environment that enables them to flourish.

The evidence demonstrates that 20 per cent of our kids are not achieving acceptable education outcomes. And so often we see that political process searching for the answer to those questions within the school themselves. Whereas the best answers lie in the system that exists before those children arrive at school. And we would argue that at very much less cost, than the cost associated with trying to remedy our learning difficulties, once children arrive in school. And then finally community-led. If we are to have a system of early childhood developments expressed through integrated service delivery at the level of neighbourhood, it has to be connected with the context in which those centres operate.

Obviously there's a very different context. You're talking with – in my – here in Perth, Peppermint Grove is very different from (Indistinct) up in the Kimberley’s. So there is obviously a very different context, very different community demands and expectations and so the capacity for a community to be involved and shape those services and to be very much part of the life of the community is absolutely critical. So we think those are the five elements of a system that works. And I suppose the next question is how do we actually get from where we are now to where we need to go. I think that's the - - -

MS HOLLONDS: But before we get to that Jay, I might - can I just interrupt you there and - - -

MR WEATHERILL: Of course.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - just talk about that vision for a bit. Just let's stay with the thought. Because you know, I – like you I've spent many years thinking about this and involved in trying to garner the right amount of evidence about the right things to persuade decision makers - - -

MR WEATHERILL: Yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - to build more of a system with – a proper system with the child at the centre.

MR WEATHERILL: Yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: And I guess I wanted to just understand from you, why do you think it's taking so long. Why – I mean, we've known, we've had the evidence, in terms of children and families, you know, in terms of social policy, we probably have more evidence about these early childhood years than we do about any other stage of life or any other set of issues. It is a strong evidence base. It's not perfect but it is, you know, we do have quite a lot of evidence – in terms of those fragmented pieces that you sort of described, you know there's bits from everywhere.

MR WEATHERILL: Yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: But what do you think is the – like why is it taking so long? I know you implemented some things in South Australia in your time. You know, I visited some of your integrated child and family centres there and been very impressed. But I guess, in terms of this vision that you're putting to us now, what's missing, why are we not getting traction when there is actually evidence available?

MR WEATHERILL: Yes. Well good arguments by themselves aren't enough. And you know, if good arguments were enough, we'd have action on climate change and a bunch of other things that self-evidently are powerful in terms of strong evidence. What you need is essentially pressure for change. And because we're talking about services systems that are dominated by government, you really have to move governments. This has to be up the list of priorities, or what government regards as something they should address. And governments will typically not lead, they'll respond. They'll respond to the state of public ferment and the debate in the community. And if we were to create the pressure for change, we have to actually create a sense that this is important enough and urgent enough that they feel the need to actually act on it. So that is the – that is the necessary – it's necessary to have good arguments, but it's not sufficient. You also need to – because there are lots of people with good arguments in various – there are a lot of things competing for the attention of government.

MS HOLLONDS: Is it the public we need to persuade before politicians can be persuaded?

MR WEATHERILL: Absolutely. Politicians follow the public. I mean you know, can I give you an example, a recent example of the last major social reform, was the National Disability Insurance Scheme. And the reason that campaign succeeded, because I remember being a disability minister back in 2004 and if you told me that we'd end up with a National Disability Insurance Scheme with double the amount of funding, I would have laughed because we were just so far down the food chain. You know it was – if you were a minister for disability that was handed to the lowliest minister in the cabinet. But what the sector did, is they united around a single campaign, where they had a single ask that resonated with, not only their own constituencies, so they had a – in fact it was a very powerful set of voices that were raised from people, with disabilities and their carers. But the broader community then brought into that idea and they managed to then enlist the support of the whole of the political process. Labour and Liberal, it was a bipartisan reform at the end of the day. And that's the style of approach that we need to recreate if we're going to be successful in early childhood.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes, yes. Jay before we go to how we do that, what are the elements of actually achieving the change that you want to see. I might just go to some questions – we've already got, quite a lot of questions on the board here.

MR WEATHERILL: Sure.

MS HOLLONDS: And I might actually go straight to some of those. So and one of them goes to these children centres in South Australia which you would know intimately. Let me go to that one first. ‘Children centres in South Australia are doing their best to remain integrated and provide quality programs and activities including the CAThS services. However, after the child completes their year of preschool, there is often a lack of support for families and children in the education system.’ So this goes to one of the issues that I think – that has emerged that powerful though it is as you say to do a lot up to the age of five, it doesn't actually inoculate the child for the rest of their lives. Basically, we need whatever system's created to continue to support the child and the family ongoing through school.

MR WEATHERILL: Of course.

MS HOLLONDS: I think that's what this questioner is going to. What would you say to that?

MR WEATHERILL: Yeah look, well I suppose, I mean I'm not sort of here to suggest that the South Australian system was perfect but by any means, it was, in a sense, we acted on that report of Fraser Mustard back in 2008, which called for children centres for early childhood development and parenting. So are they are very much about creating, not just a relationship with the child, but also a relationship with the parent, so they are about changing and supporting parents to be the best parents they could be as well. Which then become – it doesn't cease at five, this becomes a – these skills and capabilities travel with the parent, with that child for the rest of their life and with other children of course.

So look it is true, I mean I suppose we're just trying to solve one problem at a time here. I think that the urgent – if you had to choose and you had a dollar of extra expenditure or you had an hour of time and you wanted to allocate it to the thing that was going to make the most difference, I think you'd allocate it to the first five years. And one of the – I think one of the failings of the children centres, as we construct them, is that there was – there was a missing hole in the centre and that was the childcare system, which sat with the Commonwealth.

So a lot of these service systems that I described earlier, sat in the state jurisdiction. And you know, there's a lot of resource that sits in the childcare system. If we're able to integrate – one, if that was universal and there was a universal early learning offering and if that then was capable of being integrated so that you would have, you know, a seamless birth to five system, you know, you could provide a lot of this support to not only children, but families. You'd have all of these services, all sort of operating around hubs and typically on school sites, but not necessarily, that could provide the support for families.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes. Okay, so let's go back then to the – what are the – the sort of, what is the road map to achieve this change?

MR WEATHERILL: Well the first step is you have to describe the problem. You know any strategic communications exercise, has to start with, you know, the current system is – it's got some real difficulties and they're urgent. If we can't articulate a problem which is sufficiently urgent in the minds of the community, such that they make the problem for decision-makers, we won’t get to the next step. And to some degree we've been assisted, as horrible as it is by COVID. Because what I'm really talking about is rebuilding a new system.

It's much easier to do if the current system is collapsed and it almost did and in fact, it's not out of the woods yet. So the childcare system, which of course is only part of this system, but it's an important part of it, was so incapable of actually responding to the challenges of this crisis of COVID that it had to be switched off for a period of time. And you know, this is the second time during a decade the childcare system has fallen into this sort of crisis. We had ABC Early Learning a decade ago and now this. And essentially it is – it's a precarious system.

But unlike the school system and other systems, that were able to be maintained during the COVID crisis, the childcare system fell over. And so, so we've got a head start. People have been talking about early childhood in a way that has not happened. See there's no obvious reason why our issue needs to be on the national agenda. You know, it takes a lot of effort to get something on the national agenda. It's been put there by circumstances, so this is an opportunity.

But what we need now to do is just build beyond, there's been quite a rich debate about workforce participation for women. We need to build beyond that and say well it's not just – as important as that is and it's profoundly important, about how badly the childcare system discriminates against women, there is also the question of the way in which children miss out on early learning opportunities, which is arguably an even more profound missed opportunity from the way in which our current childcare system works. When people – obviously nobody on this call, but when people who aren't in this sector hear phrases like, 'Ninety per cent of a child's brain is developed by the time they reach five.' They're fascinated and astounded. And you know, what – so there is an exercise and correspondingly when children face adverse circumstances in that period. What that does to the child's brain development, is also staggering and unusual in some respects to people.

So, when people are introduced to these notions of early learning, play-based learning, the way in which a child's brain (audio malfunction), you can engage those (indistinct)). I think you can also – although it's not the most important thing for people on this call, you can - there is two other dimensions to this, which I think really turbocharges the political debate, which is the – essentially the workforce discrimination issues.

So for a lot of women, it doesn't make sense to work anything more than part-time or they get punished. In fact, they almost have to pay money to go to work for day three, so, day four and five. Leading to us having one of the highest rates of part-time female employment in the world. And as an economy, as a nation, we miss out on that capability. That is a serious economic question. And then finally, probably the thing which really is the most powerful political element in this debate is the cost of childcare. So for many families, this is a kitchen table, bread and butter issue. And we also know that when you have financial pressures on young families, that can also be deleterious to the circumstances in which that child is growing up.

So these are powerful political arguments, which also create a very solid case for change why. So then, once established and this is the first phase of the campaign and much – people are – when people communicate they're very keen to race to the solutions, but the critical element of strategic communication is to stay with the problem first. Because we have to create in the minds of decision-makers a burning platform for action. And as I say, we've got a big of a leg up because COVID has revealed to some degree, some of these (audio malfunction).

MS HOLLONDS: Yes. And it's interesting because it has kind of – COVID has changed the conversation a little bit, right down to the kitchen table, I've seen that within my own family, you know with my daughter who has kids in childcare.

MR WEATHERILL: Yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: And I've often wondered and I don't know what you think about this Jay, but in terms of the lack of traction the – that we've not been able to deal with the fragmentation of these sort of disparate systems or services before, is it a lack of imagination? Is it the fact that we're – in Australia, we're an island state, we're very far from anyone else and we kind of don't think it could be any different to how we have always had it and whether the change in conversation right at the minute has made people think, oh, hang on a minute, they were able to give us free childcare for a bit - - -

MR WEATHERILL: Yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - it could be different. Is it a lack of imagination that we've suffered from a little bit?

MR WEATHERILL: Yeah, I mean I think people just assume that – I mean I don't think anybody would have imagined, as I said I was a disability minister in 2004 if you told me we'd have a National Disability Insurance Scheme I would have laughed.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes.

MR WEATHERILL: Because I've just realised the lack of traction in my portfolio within my own government was just such that it – but so, if you have a powerful – if you're able to powerfully put these things on the national agenda, you can – you can create amazing things. And I mean, Anne, I think you've pointed out something really interesting. The government showed us that it is possible that briefly they dangled the idea - - -

MS HOLLONDS: Oh temporarily. Temporarily. Yes.

MR WEATHERILL: Yeah, but they did. But the case for universal early learning is incredibly powerful politically. And it has a really strong economic argument as well. So the Grattan Institute's report which says that it will cost 12 billion to roll out universal early learning for every child and that's assuming a big lift in demand, paying essentially, so essentially free early learning, delivers a $27 billion benefit to the economy.

Now that is – now these are very conservative numbers. Grattan came up with conservative numbers and that's before you count the costs avoided of late intervention. It's without anything for that and it's without valuing what it does to a child's brain and the general level of capability of our citizens. So clearly the case for this investment couldn't be more powerful and I think you're right I think that we – I'm always a bit optimistic about these things, but I just think that perhaps these good arguments have now fallen into a little moment in history, where we actually, where they might be able to succeed with a good quality campaign.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes, maybe. You've probably got some more things to say about the road map, but I'm going to go to questions again.

MR WEATHERILL: Sure.

MS HOLLONDS: Just to see – so that people listening know that we're not ignoring you. I've got so many questions of my own, I feel a bit torn here. Where will I go? So you've used the word accountability before and I guess this goes to the next steps as well, so this listener's question is, 'We do have a strong evidence base but no one has ultimate responsibility which means it's easy for responsibility to be avoided or passed over, how do we change this?’ And it relates – I was going to say to you, that you know, we've been talking a bit about childcare, but childcare's only one slice of that whole vision that you – you know, those elements that you went through. And we've got so many various accountabilities and you know, the lines of accountability as you've pointed out, were very siloed, very hard to get horizontal integration happening.

MR WEATHERILL: Yes.

MS HOLLONDS: So tell us how we fix that?

MR WEATHERILL: Well we've got to have an early childhood development portfolio, an Early Childhood Development Minister. And it's got to sit at one level of government. And it can only be one place. It has to be at the state level. You know, Commonwealth can't do service delivery on a place-based basis. It just can't do it, whenever it tries, it doesn't do it very well.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes.

MR WEATHERILL: I mean Commonwealths are good at frameworks and measuring systems, I mean and you still want them in that role, because you don't want, you want break out states to be held to account. But I think there's a sequence in this. The first thing we have to do is fix up and make universal the early learning offering. I mean the states – it wouldn't make sense for the states to takeover a broken childcare system and integrate it into their early development system. So there's a sort of a – there's almost like a sequence here, to these (indistinct). So, you know, this is a really complicated road map to get from where we are today, to the sort of Nirvana that I'm sort of proposing.

And getting that sequence right and how one calibrates it and what goes next and what goes first, is quite an important conversation. I can't pretend to say all that work's been done, although we do have a plan for how we might – we might get the answers to those questions. But I think the – so the short answer is, it's got to be a single level of government, preferably with a single minister and there's a weight, when you're sitting around the cabinet table, there's a certain weight that goes with the big spending portfolios. And at the moment the Early Childhood Minister, to the extent that they exist, it's usually part of something else.

So it's usually either the Education Minister or even the Child Protection Minister or some other thing. But to pool all that together and you have all that resource sitting under one Minister, they would be – it'd be a big deal around the cabinet table.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes.

MR WEATHERILL: And that's important for, not just the services, but also some of the other policy issues around, how you actually put children at the centre of – you know, not just services, but the thinking of the society.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes. All right. Let's go to more questions. I think we've quite a few early childhood education people listening in.

MR WEATHERILL: Cool.

MS HOLLONDS: Which is fabulous, so a couple of questions here about the current childcare system doesn't recognise the child protection work and support that the childcare workers often provide.

MR WEATHERILL: Yes. Okay.

MS HOLLONDS: 'When will what a childhood provides be recognised and remunerated?' I think you've probably addressed that already. And I'll just go to the second part, the second question. 'What do you say the impact may be of childcare professionals being the first to lose JobKeeper? There does not appear to have been a public outcry over the need for skilled qualified staff to nurture the learning and development of young children.' So going to what you were saying about you know, the needing to engage the public, there hasn't been a public outcry on this. You know, is that a - - -

MR WEATHERILL: I think – I – we've done our own focus group testing on this. We think this is a really powerful idea. And I'll explain the power of it. In any – any politician is very keen on reaching what they recall - what they regard as the swinging voters. And a group that's always up for grabs at every election is young families with children. Because this is a group that is just, you know, life is changing and the realities of life are becoming very significant, cost of living pressures, typically lower levels of earning as they're starting out on their careers, the kids arrive, expenses go through the roof, they're trying to buy a home or something. So and life's tough, you know?

MS HOLLONDS: Yes.

MR WEATHERILL: And these people very much are influenced, you know, each election they're very much thinking about their personal financial circumstances. We think that group is highly motivated to support a universal early learning system that is free and accessible. Because when we test this information, what we find is that they don't think the governments can help them very much about electricity prices about private health insurance, about petrol prices, they do think they can do something for them on childcare. And on queue the Commonwealth demonstrated they can, because they made it free for a period. So this – you know, we've tested this it's wildly popular, it's also popular in the broader community. And then there's another whole dimension, there's a bunch of women who are pretty angry and rightly so, for the way in which the childcare system discriminates against them. And therein other powerful constituency for change.

So there is – there are, these are capable of being motivated and building a social movement for change. I'm very confident that while we haven't heard, you might feel a bit disillusioned about the fact that they've either switched this thing off and nothing's happened, we think that there is a large group of people that are capably motivated around this issue.

MS HOLLONDS: And that's what your campaign will seek to mobilise.

MR WEATHERILL: Absolutely, yes.

MS HOLLONDS: So what can the people that are listening today, those of us who are interested in this issue, what, you know, tell us what your immediate next steps will be and if there are anything that people on the frontline in particular, could be doing to participate. What are the things that we could be doing?

MR WEATHERILL: The first thing is that we need a campaign which is about many voices, one message. What this sector is no good at, is many voices, many messages. We need one message that is repeated. Not to the exclusion of all other things but something which is consistently spoken about so that it can be built on. And that message is universal early learning for every child, so as simple as that. And it's not everything, it doesn't describe the whole of the system that we're seeking to build, but it's the skeleton on which we build the rest of the system. Because once you've got that, you've really got a service system, from which you can build out from.

And just as one of your questioners said, there's an unrecognised connection between the way in which childcare, as we calmly call early learning, as we'd prefer to call it, actually does play critical roles in these other systems, like child protection, like parenting, like assisting parents and it's other connections with service systems like the child and maternal health systems. So you do an enormous amount just by achieving that. So many voices, one message, firstly. And then the campaign is already have three dimensions. The public facing one, so raising your voice and getting people to raise their voices about that. The second is sort of an inside track about how do we answer these really complex questions about how do we get from where we are now to where we're going and there's a bunch of clever people, I'm sure many of them on this call, that can contribute to that.

That's a bit more behind the scenes policy, intellectual muscle. And then the third thing is that – is really – and I'm rounding up all of these people, some of whom will be on this call, but if you think about these five sub-systems. And you think about all the thousands of educators and nurses and social workers that are in this sector, getting them connected to this campaign. We know that there are 7,000 childcare centres across the nation. One person in each of those centres is like, there's 7,000 potential campaign offices and if you've given your child to a childcare worker, you trust them. And if they speak to you about something that's important to them, even a lesson, that's a really powerful mechanism for campaigning. It's going to be a challenging campaign, because a lot of these parents are busy and you know, it's going to be difficult to get them to come out, but that's really what the mechanism looks like.

MS HOLLONDS: And so how are you going to go about that? Trying to harness the many voices, one message for example?

MR WEATHERILL: Well, what we'll be seeking to do is reach out essentially to all of the organisations that are already involved. There's already about 10 existing sort of campaign efforts. We're making good connections with organisations that are already, you know, highly visible in this place and obviously people are familiar with the early child campaign. It's work that's been done by you know, The Parenthood, Early Childhood Australia, The Front Project, there's a plethora of organisations that are already active in this - - -

MS HOLLONDS: Like a coalition in a sense?

MR WEATHERILL: Yes.

MS HOLLONDS: A coalition of organisations to begin with.

MR WEATHERILL: Yes.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes, okay.

MR WEATHERILL: Yes, they need to call up the unions, (indistinct) if the Australian Education Union and the United Worker's Union that cover the childcare workers. Some of the big providers like Good Start, who are interested in reform of the sector. So it's really reaching out and seeking to build that campaign. So what will the campaign look like? It will have advertising, that we’ll purchase online and paid advertising. It will seek to mobilise you know, all the voluntary networks that we can gain access to. Have a website that will have a supported journey that will involve people in deeper levels of connection. And I suppose what we want to do is we don't want to create – we don't want to lose anything of what's happened at the moment.

There's been a fantastic amount of work that's already happened, we just want to add to that and try and just sharpen up the ask of the political process so that, I mean, what I find, you know, when the benefactor of our organisation, Nicola Forrest goes to see the Prime Minister and you know, with the cost of late intervention report and says, you know, 'This is really important. Can you do something about it?' You know basically the answer is 'Oh well, you know nobody else is sort of saying this to me, you know, why should I – why should I sort of act in this area.' You know and we also hear people that go and lobby politicians and they say, 'Oh so you want us to be nice little good children.' You know, that – so there's no grip, you know, in them, but we've got to sharpen up the political ask in a way which is – where they can't ignore us.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes.

MR WEATHERILL: Just like that. I mean when they are able to turn off the JobSeeker, we want to be stronger and a more powerful political force so they can't treat us like that, because it's unacceptable.

MS HOLLONDS: Do you think time is an issue here with talking about how maybe COVID has changed the conversation a bit, opened a bit of a window, for imagining things to be different, is it urgent now? Now you - - -

MR WEATHERILL: Absolutely. It's easier to maintain momentum than build it. So we're talking about early childhood at the moment and have been and the problems as childcare centres start to struggle, you'll see more and more stories in the paper. And you know, I think - but they won't be there forever. Something else important will take over if we don't jump on this opportunity.

MS HOLLONDS: So we're starting to run out of time Jay. There are a lot of questions still up here, but I think, as I look at them, a lot of them you've sort of touched on in your presentation in any case, but I'm thinking that for those people whose questions I can't get to, they will want to know how can they stay in touch with the work that you're doing at Thrive by Five and the coalition that you're forming. How can they be engaged and follow the progress of that work and potentially to contribute?

MR WEATHERILL: Absolutely Anne. Well the first thing is it would be, if we're able to capture some of these questions, it'd be – it'd be great. Then I could have a chance to have a go at answering them.

MS HOLLONDS: So we'll all fax those onto you, yes.

MR WEATHERILL: And secondly, look, if we do our job it'll be pretty obvious when the campaign starts. And it'll be also hopefully obvious how people can get involved. But you know and the people can be involved at any level, they can be involved in trying to organise the sector, they can be involved in inside track trying to work out the difficult policy questions. Or if they want to speak publicly, you know, I would – it would be – I would be really happy never have to speak to another journalist ever again in my life, but I'd rather have other people out there doing that. So my job is to push the experts out the door and get them to talk about why this is important. But, you know, so my job is to manage the campaign basically and I – the more talent I have, the people that know what they're talking about that can actually explain why the early years are so important and how powerful this is and what the problems with the existing system are, and how parents will benefit and children will benefit. It'll be really powerful and will energise the campaign.

MS HOLLONDS: So you're saying that it will become obvious in due course how to get involved?

MR WEATHERILL: We'll have a launch and I'll like you know, with your co-operation I'd communicate with anybody that's connected up with this process and then they can choose to be – to be involved if they wish. And of course, the other thing is to shape our thinking, I mean we're not really – I'm not here to say we have all the answers, or we have – we're still – we generally have a strategy, but populating it with detail and tactics and how we roll this out. I mean, one of the things is that we had contemplated there'd be a launch in 20 cities across the nation, so hopefully it will be coming to places near you. Obviously that's a bit constrained by our travel arrangements at the moment. So we're thinking through what a launch looks like in this context.

MS HOLLONDS: But you're talking about doing something in 2020?

MR WEATHERILL: Yes.

MS HOLLONDS: Right.

MR WEATHERILL: And we're going through final work approval processes in the coming days and we're really pushing the go button within weeks.

MS HOLLONDS: Okay. So I will make sure that we pass on the specific detailed questions that we've got that we haven't been able to get to and I apologise to those whose questions didn't get put to Jay. But I do thank you Jay. I think you have covered a lot of, quite granular detail in your discussion with me today. I think you've given us a lot and I really appreciate you sharing your reflections though, I just wish we had a few more hours to pull all these bits apart and maybe we can call you back some time and certainly maybe in a year's time when the AIFS conference comes around, hopefully, COVID free, we'll be able to actually run a conference, then maybe you'll come back and share how things have gone - - -

MR WEATHERILL: Yeah, well it'll be up and running by then. So that'd be a lovely offer thank you.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes. So, thank you very much and I've just got a few little announcements before we finish up for today. So, as you know many of the participants would know our conference is now in June 2021. Just pop on to our website, you can register already and then there'll be lots more information coming shortly. We have one more webinar in this current Families in Focus series and that's actually on Thursday of this week. And I'm very excited about this, after having hosted a few with some external presenters, this is an AIFS one, where we're actually sharing our landmark survey, which will be launched on Thursday, called 'Families in Australia Live during COVID-19' and Jay there's a lot of interesting data there about childcare and what happened – and what parents have gone through and you know, so this is really looking at what – how our everyday lives have changed or in some cases, haven't changed, but you'll hear more about that on Thursday from Kelly. And that will be our final one in this series, so don't miss that one. And look, thank you again Jay and we're very, very grateful for your time today.

MR WEATHERILL: No problem.

MS HOLLONDS: Thank you for the team behind the scenes as well, for all of these webinars, they've just done a fabulous job, so thank you. Thank you, everybody, and thank you for you as participants and for your great questions. As I said, we will make sure that Jay gets all of those and is able to incorporate your ideas into the work that he and his team are doing from here as well. Thank you, everyone, we'll finish off now.

MR WEATHERILL: Thank you.

MS HOLLONDS: Bye, take care.

WEBINAR CONCLUDED

IMPORTANT INFORMATION - PLEASE READ

The transcript is provided for information purposes only and is provided on the basis that all persons accessing the transcript undertake responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of its content. Before using the material contained in the transcript, the permission of the relevant presenter should be obtained.

The Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is not responsible for, and makes no representations in relation to, the accuracy of this transcript. AIFS does not accept any liability to any person for the content (or the use of such content) included in the transcript. The transcript may include or summarise views, standards or recommendations of third parties. The inclusion of such material is not an endorsement by AIFS of that material; nor does it indicate a commitment by AIFS to any particular course of action

This webinar was held on Tuesday 30 June. Please post your questions below.

Though there is need for ongoing vigilance, Australia is showing great resilience in the face of COVID-19. The immediate task of surviving this health crisis is itself ferociously challenging but there is a second, nation-defining task that cannot be ignored: how to build back better. This is a test not only of management, but of imagination.

This should start with early childhood development. Around 90% of a person’s lifelong brain development occurs in the first five years. A more effective system of early childhood development impacts the trajectory of so many important areas of policy: education, health, workforce participation, economic productivity. Reimagining this system is a challenge uniquely suited to the post COVID nation build.

To contemplate reform to such a complex area of public policy, systems change is preferred to a gradual, sequential approach. Early childhood policy makers, academic experts and professionals have a strong sense of the characteristics of best practice in the early childhood development system.

We need to deliver universal access to child care and preschool. We need to improve the standards of our centres, 20% of which fall below national standards. We need an integrated service delivery, so parents can access those services they need in one place. The centres need to be community-led, as we acknowledge the importance of place. And we need our early childhood system to be connected to the education system, to ensure accountability and a smooth transition to the next stage of a person’s development.

If we want our children to be strong, capable, independent, curious, imaginative: we must invest in the early years. If we want our children to lead the world in literacy and numeracy: we must invest in the early years. If we want to prepare our children today to contribute to improved national productivity tomorrow: we must invest in the early years. We must invest in the early years, for the future of our nation.


Back to the Families in Focus series page.

About the presenters

Jay Weatherill

Chief Executive Officer, Thrive by Five, Minderoo Foundation

Jay Weatherill is the new CEO of Thrive by Five, responsible for delivering Minderoo’s early childhood agenda. Jay was Premier of South Australia for six and a half years and Minister for 16 years in portfolios including early childhood. He holds law and economics degrees from the University of Adelaide.

 

He is as Industry Professor at the University of South Australia, an Ambassador for Reggio Children and chairs an early childhood research project for Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY).