Speech to the “New Horizons for Educational Research Conference”

Speech
  • Minister for Employment Participation
  • Minister for Child Care

ADELAIDE, 29 SEPTEMBER 2011

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I am so pleased to be able to be here and help officially close such a worthy and significant gathering. I trust that everyone involved has found the past two days stimulating and thought provoking.

I want to acknowledge the excellent work that has been done at the state and territory level. Particularly by my friend in the South Australian Government Minister Jay Weatherill, whose strong personal commitment to putting the child at the centre of data and research for better policy development and implementation will mean great things for this state now and into the future. His leadership in promoting these issues in the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs has been the key to having this forum take place.

However, the real test of course lies in what happens next. I look forward very much to hearing the outcomes of this forum, and how governments might take forward the issues you have been discussing.

My message to you here today is to assure you that this is actually all very worthwhile. The research you undertake, the knowledge base that is expanded- all plays a very real role in determining the policy outcomes that are pursued in the best interests of Australian children.

Big changes that are currently underway in the Australian early childhood education and care space are in no small part due to lessons learnt through data linkage. Similarly there are some exciting new opportunities being presented with a host of new tools available for analysis.

Now you don’t need me to tell you about research findings. You are all well aware and there is no question amongst researchers that the first five years of a child’s life are critical.

And of course, with the learning that occurs in those early years being increasingly influenced by early educators as well as parents, we have a responsibility as governments to ensure that early education is best quality it can be.

You’re no doubt quite familiar with the research conducted in studies like the groundbreaking High Scope/Perry Preschool study in the United States- which followed more than 100 African American people from toddler age until their mid 50s, comparing the life outcomes of those who received preschool education and those who didn’t.

Whilst it’s been joined by countless other studies undertaken and supportive findings, the study is still used as a good point of reference for policy interventions today.

And the results of that study were staggering. 77 per cent of individuals who received access to early education graduated high school, compared to only 60 per cent who didn’t. At the age of 19, 50 per cent of those who received early education were employed compared to only 32 per cent of those who didn’t. And at the age of 40, 60 per cent of those who had attended preschool had incomes above the state median, compared with 40 per cent of those who didn’t.

Additionally, a cost-benefit analysis of the High/Scope Perry Preschool program indicated savings to the public of more than seven times the initial investment per child, with a return of more than seven to one for every original dollar spent.

Let’s think about that in the context of the Australian Government’s investment in early childhood education and child care. Over the next four years we will invest a record $20 billion in this area – more than double what was provided in the last four years of the Howard Government.

If we achieve even close to a seven to one return on investment, I think we can all agree it will have been money that was extremely well spent.

And with more than 800 000 Australian children being placed in child care each week, those early learning experiences are increasingly being shaped by child care workers.

It is for this reason –because of the hard work of researchers and their powerful conclusions- that our Government, in partnership with the states and territories, is driving a national reform agenda to improve the quality of Australian child care. We are introducing a National Quality Framework for Australian child care that will see a set of standards introduced right across the country.

It will deliver improved staff-to-child ratios so that children get more individualised care and attention. We will also be requiring staff to have education and care qualifications so that they are properly equipped to lead those early learning activities that are critical to children’s development.

Importantly, we will be implementing a ratings system for child care centres across seven key areas, so that parents can really know what sort of service they are accessing for their children.

These changes will mean that parents can have the peace of mind that when they drop their kids off at care in the morning, those kids aren’t just being booked in for a day of babysitting. Instead, they will have access to highly trained educators, delivering a professional learning experience, so we are giving those young minds the brainfood they so desperately crave in those first 5 years of life. And as research shows, setting them up for a life of greater health, wealth and success.

The implementation of the National Quality Framework from 1 January is tribute that the hard work of researchers and data linkage can indeed have profound effects on public policy, and should continue to do so.

Now whilst the study I mentioned a moment ago was undertaken in the United States, of course data linkage in Australia gives us the opportunity to derive evidence akin to this in relation to significant populations of our own children. In fact, at a national level, Australia is exceptionally well placed to take evidence-based social policy to the next level.

The development of a more integrated early childhood education and care agenda under the broad umbrella of COAG’s Early Childhood Development Strategy provides a key policy framework against, which data developments such as the highly innovative Australian Early Development Index and the new National Collection for Early Childhood Education and Care can be built.

Our Government has been very active in the schools space as well, with the creation of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, and the MySchool facility to inform parents and the community about school performance, including NAPLAN results.

What we now have in Australia is an exciting opportunity to build on the datasets currently in place or being developed.

This will give us better information and the capacity for analysis, so we can get whole of population life-cycle information about what works in early childhood services, schooling, and associated support such as health and family support.

We are publishing more data than ever before in the early childhood education and child care space and have created the Australian Early Development Index (the AEDI) to provide us with the evidence base we need to make policy that will improve the lives of our most vulnerable children.

This new commitment to transparency and the availability of robust and meaningful data presents a unique opportunity for researchers and governments to work together going forward.

There are already clear messages coming out of AEDI and the next step would be to see how these findings play out over the longer term. For example through a study of what the influence of geographic location is on our children’s development.

The AEDI shows that while most Australian children are doing well overall, the further a child is from a major city, the higher the likelihood of developmental vulnerability. The contrast is as high as 47 per cent in very remote compared to 23 per cent in major cities.

As we collect more data over time and as children grow up through a system where we are more closely tracking their progress, we will be able to compare the outcomes such as those in the AEDI, with NAPLAN results for example.

The possibilities that lie ahead of us are significant and forums like this one help build momentum for change.

Your forum brings together researchers and policy makers in the education area - in many cases for the first time at the national level. This is excellent because I firmly believe that policy cannot be divorced from the research that supports it.

I’m excited by the prospect of using data linkage to give us the story on life-cycle experiences, to compare learning pathways and outcomes for people with different needs and circumstances. But I am particularly excited because, as a result of appropriately studying the evidence - we truly do have a capacity to not just improve education outcomes for Australians but indeed to improve lives.

I look forward to continuing to work with you to get the best possible results for Australian children, right from the earliest years.

Thank you.

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