Speech by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Speech to 2009 Early Childhood Education Conference

Location: 2009 Early Childhood Education Conference, Melbourne


Good morning. I’m Bill Shorten and I’m standing in for Maxine, whose department is child care and early childhood education.

She’s the expert, and I’m the novice, but when I was the National Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union I had cause, believe me, to talk with working families about the subject, about child care, or rather the lack of affordable child care.

And as I get a good bit more of it.

Maxine’s job and mine cross over now and then, and one of the ways they do is in the six Autism specific Early Learning and Care Centres across Australia.

In Melbourne there’s a centre that will be operated by La Trobe University in partnership with the Royal Children’s Hospital.

This Centre, is due to open in June 2010 and will extend the existing state-of-the-art La Trobe University Community Children’s Centre to accommodate the Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre.

This will provide specific support to children with autism by giving them access to psychologists, occupational therapists and speech pathologists.

It is a great example of the benefits of early intervention,

And the value of providing child care that is not just about child storage but is about providing a learning environment for children.

I understand that Kindergarten Parents Victoria, in partnership with other organisations, just last month hosted an event to address the question of how best to include children with a disability in kindergarten programs.

May I commend you for your efforts.

So I’m delighted to be here this morning to share with you the Rudd Government’s agenda for reforming a sector that Australian families and the economy rely on.

Compelling Research

Together we grow – facing the future, it’s a great conference theme. It encapsulates a positive attitude to the future.

The recent research into early childhood education gives us the reason for change in this sector.

We understood very little about how children learned when kindergartens started in the 19th century.

But in the last decade alone the research has revealed some astounding facts.

We now know that by the time an infant is nine months old their synapses are at their peak when it comes to being receptive to language.

That means parents and carers need to talk to babies.

We also know the first three years of life are critical to how children develop language and control emotion.

This is the foundation for them to become well adjusted adults.

The further we look the more the research points us towards the same conclusion – getting a child ready for school and life starts at birth.

We just have to help families and educators get it right.

Our future and our children’s future depends on it.

We’re doing this because it’s far better to invest in a child’s early years

Than it is to do remedial work if primary school students perform poorly in literacy and numeracy tests.

Some of you may be familiar with recent ACER research on children’s performance.

In Queensland for example, by the time children at metropolitan schools reach Year five, a gap of about two and-a-half years has opened up between the top and bottom 20 per cent of students.

And the sad thing is – that gap grows even wider when comparing the performance with remote and Indigenous communities.

Our vision for the sector is simple but ambitious:

We want children to start school as happy, confident learners.

This is why we’re investing in the early years.

Why we’re tackling the origins of underperformance.

We’re doing it to achieve our goal of better Year 12 retention rates by 2015.

We’re doing it to achieve our goal of getting 20 per cent of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds into university by 2020.

The Australian Government is reforming the sector because, like you, we know that a child’s early years are critically important.

It’s why, over the next few years the Rudd Government has committed investment of around $3.6 billion annually to early childhood education and care.

What have we done to make our vision a reality?

In 2008, we consulted right across the early childhood education and care sector.

We asked what you thought.

What were the strengths in the sector?

What were the weaknesses, and what would a new national quality framework look like?

More than 2500 people shared their views at 38 face to face meetings including Gowrie Victoria and Kindergarten Parents Victoria.

More than 400 people and organisations contributed written submissions.

The feedback showed widespread support for the proposed reforms.

People also appreciated being consulted on ways to modernise the sector to meet the needs of children and their families.

To get to our goal we need to raise qualifications and standards in the pre school environment.

When a child goes to school they are taught by a qualified teacher.

Yet at zero, one, two, three, and four, it’s not considered essential.

But we know – because the research tells us – that the first five years of life are critical.

As a responsible government we how could we not ensure quality in the kindergarten and earlier years learning environments.

As a result, we are creating a professionally trained workforce.

And our child care and early learning centres will be judged by clearly defined national standards.

By setting children up for a positive experience of education, we are giving them the best chance of a productive, more fulfilling life.

We are making it responsive – not just to children’s learning needs in the 21st century – but also to the needs of working families.

Government approved child care services that will grow and thrive in this new landscape will take this opportunity to offer parents high quality care by professional, well qualified staff.

Early Years Learning Framework

Last week in Hobart, Maxine announced that subject to COAG’s agreement, the first part of our National Quality Agenda will come into place in July, with the Early Years Learning Framework.

It’s worth pointing out that the Victorian Government is leading the development of the Framework on behalf of COAG.

The Framework spells out specific learning outcomes and how educators know when they’re achieving them.

These parameters will cover children’s development from birth to five as well as their transition to school.

The Early Years Learning Framework has practical guidance based on Australian expertise and international evidence.

It will help ensure that the learning experiences of young children are well planned and take account of the individual needs of each child.

The Framework embraces programs that reflect contemporary theories of early childhood learning.

Theories that emphasise play-based learning and incorporate communication and language (including early literacy and numeracy); as well as social and emotional development.

National Quality Agenda

The Early Years Learning Framework is the first part of the Government’s National Quality Agenda.

This Agenda will dissolve the divide between education and care.

It’s about four things:

  • The early years learning framework, as I have already mentioned,
  • the National Quality Standard,
  • the quality ratings system and
  • streamlined regulatory arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories.

The quality ratings system will be linked to the Standard.

Families can use this information to help them choose a child care service that meets their needs.

The rating system will not only drive continuous improvement among operators, but it will also do much to engage parents.

Implementing the National Quality Agenda is a priority.

But we are going to take the time to work with the sector to get it right.

We’ll consult further with you, after we get the go-ahead from COAG in July.

The final National Quality Standard will be appropriate for your work settings.

I urge you to let Maxine know your views on this during the consultation process.

Universal Access to kindergarten

Universal Access to kindergarten is a challenge facing the sector and one that has particular relevance for this audience.

Children will get 15 hours of a kindergarten program for 40 weeks in the year before formal schooling. The programs will be run by qualified teachers and in a range of settings, including community kindergartens and child care centres.

We want to achieve this by 2013. The states and territories are working with us on this on this $970 million initiative. Victoria, for example, will receive $210 million over five years to 2012-13.

The Victorian Government already has a high kindergarten enrolment.

It also provides some free kindergarten to three-year-olds if they are Indigenous or are known to Child Protection, as well as to four-year-olds from low income families.

Many of your centres already offer 12 hours or more, with parents paying the cost after 10 hours.

This suggests that parents want more hours of kindergarten.

I think this is proof that we’re on the right track with our Universal Access commitment.

This development is a significant step that will contribute to achieving the Universal Access goal for Victoria’s children.

Victoria’s kindergartens face a challenge to move from around 10 hours to 15 hours a week. It will require planning, getting the infrastructure in place, and making sure our pre school teachers have the skills and flexibility to deliver.

Expanding hours and getting enough early childhood trained teachers ready within four years is a challenge but I’m confident that there’s enough momentum to achieve this.

I’ve no doubt we can do it here in Victoria.

Developing the workforce

This year we abolished TAFE fees for anyone studying a diploma or advanced diploma in child care.

We expect this to generate about 8000 child care workers each year over 4 years.

Already TAFEs are reporting strong enrolments, and some report an increase in Certificate III training from students keen to advance to the diploma level.

This year we created an extra 500 university places for early childhood education with 115 going to Victoria.

By 2011 there will be 1500 places nationally.

I understand there’s been keen interest which is good news for the future of the workforce.

Two encouraging examples from Victoria reveal strong demand.

The Melbourne campus of the Australian Catholic University was provided with an additional 15 places and enrolled 130 students.
An extremely good result, especially as it was the first time the course had been offered at that campus.

Deakin University was provided with 15 additional places and 98 offers were made, from the pool of 280 applications.
What is really exciting about this result is that these places are only available to holder of a TAFE Diploma of Children’s Services. Or to a three-year trained early childhood teachers looking to upgrade their qualifications.

This is all great news for the future workforce.

Finally, we have waived up to half the HECS HELP debts of early childhood teachers who want to work in regional and remote areas, Indigenous communities and areas of high disadvantage.

Parliament has passed the guidelines for this benefit. Early childhood education teachers working in eligible areas can apply for this benefit from July.

Paid Parental Leave

No speech about children’s early years would be complete without acknowledging the Rudd Government’s decision to introduce Paid Parental Leave.

Now, for the first time ever, we have a Paid Parental Leave Scheme.
It makes being a working parent a whole lot easier.

Paid parental leave is the jewel in the crown of the Rudd Government’s commitment to children’s early development.

Paid parental leave gives babies the best start possible in life.

Parents can stay home when their baby is in those vital early months of their social, cognitive and physical development.

When parents of a newborn have income certainty in those critical first few months there’s less stress in the home. Low stress is a building block of a quality environment.

In the same way, child care run by fully trained professionals who understand the importance of early development – who know that being ready for school starts at birth – is important for a creating a quality learning environment.

And when we have a quality environment in those pre school years our children start school as happy, confident learners who will go on to perform well in their school years.


For this, I believe, is the core of it, these infant years are the root and branch of it, these primal, tender, questing years of groping towards the light and beginning to know the contours of the universe.

They are the years in which our souls are made and our beings shaped, and to neglect these years is to stunt the growth and hobble the capacity of our future citizens, our future carers the heirs and masters of Australia’s future.

It’s good so many of you are here, and it’s great that in Victoria at least there are a lot of people already participating in these consultations, these roads maps of our future.

I’m confident we can work together and raise the standards, blow the bugles, wave the flags and do those necessarily simple things in childhood care and childhood enlargement that will put us up there with the best in the world.

Thank you.