I rise to speak in support of the Education and Training Reform Amendment Bill 2020. As other speakers have outlined, this is a relatively small and simple bill that broadly makes two amendments that I will point out: it clarifies that the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority has the power to employ staff during peak exam times in the school year and makes a technical amendment in terms of changing the definition of an early childhood teacher in the act. I did just want to touch on briefly the experiences of students and families and teachers and staff in relation to the impact of COVID on education at the school level and of course early learning as well. It really does go without saying that it has been a tough year—a tough year for students and teachers and staff and families. I have just been really impressed how quickly teachers and staff at our schools have adapted and rallied to switch over to online teaching and learning and how students and parents have adapted as well. It has been tough, and there will be a number of students that will have fallen behind or missed out—many disadvantaged students will have fallen through the cracks—despite the best efforts of schools. And there will need to be effort put in to re-engage those students and schools, really, to do that. It takes resources for schools, it takes staff time and it takes effort, and schools really should be supported to do that.
One issue that I have spoken about before is that the pandemic really has exposed the digital divide between students. I really welcomed that the government moved quickly to get laptops and devices into students’ hands, and a number of schools sourced them from other means as well to make sure that students could learn from home. There were some real success stories of students who were otherwise disengaged from school actually re-engaging simply because they had access to a computer or a device and the internet. But it really is concerning that so many students were without access to a computer or the internet in the first place. When you look at education, surely access to the internet and a computer at home is essential to any student’s learning. I have raised this at the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee inquiry directly with the Minister for Education—the need to have a long-term look and a long-term strategy to ensure that all students have access to a computer and internet at home—and I have welcomed the positive response that I have had from the minister in that regard.
We do know that investment in education is good value for governments when they look at economic recovery; employing more teachers and more support workers who are able to spend more time with disadvantaged students and provide more support for students with a disability is a really good investment for governments to make. Victoria’s public schools are still underfunded when you look at the Gonski funding deal, to the tune of about $1 billion a year, which is far from the agreed standard. So certainly this is the perfect time for state and federal governments to increase funding to public schools. We are one of the lowest funded per student for public schools in the country, not due to reach parity with other states until late into the decade, so that sort of funding would go a long way to helping disadvantaged students and disadvantaged schools the most.
Moving on to early education, with the bill setting out the definition of an early childhood teacher, we have just seen just how important both child care and kinder have been to families. We already knew how important they are to a child’s development, but now I think there is a new appreciation for child care and kinder being essential services and a new appreciation for childcare workers and for early learning teachers. We acknowledge that they are poorly paid. They deserve better pay and conditions. They have been poorly paid for too long, given just how essential child care and kinder are, given how important they are to a child’s development and given how important they are to women and to carers and to supporting them to return to work. One of the big ideas now, which has widespread community support, has been looking at universal free access to child care and kinders, just like we have with public education, making them available to anyone who needs them, just not those who can afford them. I guess there is the assumption that if you are out of work or unemployed, you can look after your kids, or if you are in work, you can pay for child care, and that simply is not the case. Again, as we look at the economic recovery, we know what a good return on investment child care and early childhood education are.
I recently attended a forum put on by Progressive Port Phillip on rethinking early childhood education and care. Jay Weatherill, the former South Australian Premier, spoke in his new role in support of free universal early education. It is something that the ACTU has come out very strongly for, so there is widespread community support. This is one of the big reforms and big investments that need to be looked at in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, to get there I think one of the key issues to look at, as I raised, is going to be looking at early childhood educators. Of course you would need more teachers. You would need to address the supply issues for those teachers, making sure you have got the qualifications, making sure you have got the wages and conditions to make moving into that sector as attractive as possible and making sure that you are addressing the wage gap for early childhood teachers. The impact that early childhood teachers have on a child’s life certainly is not reflected in their wages, and so it is well past time for people who educate and care for our children to have the pay and conditions that they have long deserved.
This would be a big change. It would be a generational change. Going back to the early 1990s, Jeff Kennett and the Kennett government cut preschool funding, resulting in parents having to pay part of the costs. There is a big opportunity now for governments to take on the full cost of the delivery of three- and four-year-old kinder. Obviously with child care one of the issues has been the funding arrangements, kinder being dealt with largely at the state level and child care at the federal level, so there is now a big opportunity federally looking at making child care free. These would be big generational changes that would have massive benefits to society, to women in particular, and for the development of young people. Certainly it is something that needs to be strongly considered.