Rarely do we know what influences a politician’s decision about what policy issues will define them.
Bob Hawke saw starving children at the gates of an Indian palace as a 23-year-old. Was this what made him promise some 35 years later that under his government “no child would live in poverty”? Or was it some other private experience that made childhood poverty resonate with Hawke so much?
We do know, however, that Kevin Rudd’s summer reading influenced one of his legacy issues. Rudd read Nobel laureate James Heckman’s research showing that when children have an early childhood education they are less likely to engage in criminal acts or become pregnant as teens, and are more likely to have higher incomes and better health as adults.
Rudd was so impressed he made this his first election promise. He wanted every Australian child to be able to access 15 hours per week of early childhood education - delivered by a qualified early childhood education teacher - in the year before they started school.
He wanted the teachers trained in “the things that are important in shaping our littlies as they head off into the school system later”, such as “pre-literacy, pre-numeracy and play-based learning".
Once he gained power, he convinced every state and territory government to sign up to the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education, backed by $970 million of funding to the states over a five-year period.
In the way of so many promises, there was, of course, a gulf between the promise and the practice.
By 2012 the ACT, which had undertaken a staged rollout across all preschools, was reporting that it had increased the percentage of children accessing the fabled 15 hours from 13.7 per cent in 2009 to 69 per cent. Victoria and South Australia were reporting they were on target for 92 per cent by 2013. NSW figures were not reported.
Nonetheless, all states and territories were working towards ensuring their youngest citizens had access to the magic bullet that would make them healthy, wealthy and wise later on.
The 2013-14 budget provided an additional $660 million to extend the universal access partnership until December 31, 2014.
Since the partnership was signed, evidence has also shown the benefits of early education for children’s later academic success. University of Melbourne research proved children who participated in early education, led by early childhood teachers, scored 20 to 30 points higher on their first NAPLAN tests in primary school.
In 2012, Program for International Student Assessment tests showed students who had an early childhood education were ahead by as much as 12 months academically over their peers at the age of 15.
Early education may be a magic bullet, but the knowledge of this was unlikely to sway a government looking for budget savings in every nook and cranny.
The state and territory governments were understandably concerned when Sussan Ley, the Commonwealth Assistant Minister for Education, said she didn't believe funding preschool to be a Commonwealth responsibility.
Will early childhood education become another victim of Commonwealth budget cuts?
A communique issued after a meeting last Friday of state and Commonwealth education ministers was silent on the subject, despite several state education ministers (Adrian Piccoli from NSW and Jennifer Rankine from South Australia, along with Victorian Premier Denis Napthine) pushing for the continuation of the funding.
South Australia has made it clear it will need to cut the number of hours children can attend preschool unless the funding extension is granted.
In NSW, where fewer children have access to a preschool education in the first place and where fees are the highest, the impact of the loss of funding would hit especially hard.
The median cost per hour of preschool in NSW in 2012 was $4.71, compared with $1.77 per hour in Victoria. In 2012 only 64.7 per cent of NSW children attended a preschool program at all in the year before school, compared with 100 per cent of children in Tasmania and the ACT, 99 per cent in Victoria and Western Australia, and 93 per cent in South Australia.
We know conclusively that although all children benefit from early education, disadvantaged children benefit the most.
In 2011 57.1 per cent of children under two years old were read to at home from a book or told a story each day; 19.8 per cent had no activities like this at home. Preschool education helps close that literacy gap.
Will Ley and her cabinet colleagues continue funding early childhood education? If early education activists had the foresight to take a young Ley to a disadvantaged community so she could have been moved by how much early learning can shape the life of a child whose destiny is otherwise limited, she may well have decided to make access to early childhood education her political legacy. If they had, the funding would possibly not be in doubt now.
Lisa Bryant is a consultant in the early education and care sector and is the NSW convenor of Australian Community Children's Services.