IT’S TIME THE LIBERALS COMMITTED TO PRESCHOOL FUNDING

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (15:43): There's much enthusiasm on this side of the House to participate in this debate. As a teacher by training, I think for many, many decades there's been a fundamental and profound understanding by anybody who works in the teaching profession—and I suspect by many parents, and the previous speaker acknowledged his new insight into education as a new parent. But there is a fundamental truth in all education, and that is: the earlier you invest, the better the return you get on that investment.

I was trained and worked as a high-school teacher and a TAFE teacher. I'm very profoundly aware that when you're working at the remedial end of education—when somebody has got to the age of 13, 14 or older without a solid foundation in the basics that they need, and they're struggling in education, you really are up against it to put in what needs to be given to that person so that they can reach their full potential. It's much more difficult and it's much more expensive to actually try to redress problems once people get to that age. The evidence is in. This isn't ideology, as the Prime Minister likes to complain that people talk about. This is evidence. There's been evidence for decades, by researchers and people in the education sphere, that, if you invest in children at the most formative time in their life—and we know that's the years from nought to five—and get them a solid educational foundation at that point in time, you are maximising their chance to succeed, not only for the rest of their educational life but also into their adult and working life.

For a long time, we've been pushing for this in this country, and I'm very pleased that the former Labor government got behind commitments to early learning, particularly for four-year-olds. Obviously, there's an interest in having this available for three- and four-year-olds, but that commitment was there for preschool for all four-year-olds. We did that because we respected the evidence and we cared about our youngest minds. We cared that every young child under the age of five had the opportunity to get on the step to education on an even footing, and that it wasn't the case that, if you happened to have a lot of money, you could buy a good-quality experience for your little ones. You probably already had an enriched home with lots of learning aids and experiences, but you would also have been able to access what were expensive preschool opportunities. We said this should be available to all children. That's an investment. It's not a cost to the budget; it's an investment in our future.

I visited the Smith Street Children's Centre last week in my own electorate. I know many colleagues, including those on the other side of the House, visited such centres last week for Early Learning Matters Week. When you see three- and four-year-olds and their excitement and the drive to learn and to be part of a great experience, it's just so inspiring, and we need to foster that. Too often we have systems that kill that off. Often by the time they got to high school, I would think: 'What have we done? We've killed that inquisitiveness and joy in learning.' We need to put more into that, and that's an investment for this nation.

So it is absolutely shocking that the government will not give a long-term commitment to that preschool opportunity. What they have been doing is rolling it over, year by year. That means that, if you go to enrol your little one in a school, you won't know whether the preschool program being run in that centre will still be available by the time your little one gets to that point, because the government won't give long-term certainty. It is, I would suggest, something that they can't just push off until after an election—which I think what's been exposed with the budget papers makes us cynical about. It's got to be a commitment. Parents and families in my electorate and the centres that I visit and the parents I talk to want to know now that this government is going to give a long-term commitment to preschool education, a long-term commitment to their kids and a long-term commitment to all of our best interests in having a really well-educated population for the future.

Watch Sharon’s speech here.