Education and Training Reform Amendment (Early Childhood Employment Powers) Bill 2024

21 February 2024

It is a pleasure to rise to speak on this bill, the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Early Childhood Employment Powers) Bill 2024. Education is certainly a passion of mine, and I have spoken in space about it before, being a former primary school teacher. We all know that the early years in a child’s life and early childhood are the most critical phases in their development. In their formative years they are laying the foundation for that learning, the growth and the social and emotional development. But the whole key to unlocking that potential is our early years educators. I can imagine a world where every child has access to quality early childhood education, where potential knows no bounds and children have the opportunity to thrive and succeed. That is the world that we as a government are trying to create and are working towards creating. It does start with recognising the importance of early childhood and this government certainly recognises that for our youngest Victorians and for our families.

This investment in early education that has occurred over the years, in more recent years with Best Start, Best Life, is certainly unprecedented. As part of the $14 billion Best Start, Best Life reforms the Victorian government has committed to building these 50 new government-owned and operated early learning centres across Victoria, giving families further options. These centres will open in a few years to come, and all 50 centres will be located where they are most needed, in areas where there is significant childcare shortage and higher rates of disadvantage.

This is going to increase the ability of carers and families to access child care and give particularly women options and choice when they are looking to return to work.

I am really proud to have one of the 50 centres announced in my electorate in an area that was in desperate need of a service, and this is in what they call the Portarlington statistical area 2 region, which takes in the towns of Portarlington, Indented Head and St Leonards. The state government and local government are working together really well to have a dedicated service, a preferred service, at the St Leonards township, where there is no current service for families. I remember that when announcing this there was a lot of excitement. It was just so well received by that St Leonards community because they had been advocating for a service for a while. They have been eagerly contacting me in the last little while to get regular updates on where we are at with that. With the growth that we have seen across the Bellarine, in particular down on the coastline of Portarlington, St Leonards and Indented Head, it is vital that we have this service to keep up with that growth. It is a great place to raise a family, and many families have moved to the area. This childcare centre will be absolutely welcomed by the families there, and I am really pleased to see this investment.

This bill does empower the Secretary of the Department of Education to employ staff at early learning centres and enable the Minister for Children to make orders in relation to staff employment and the payment of fees by parents of children enrolled in the centres. So that is just a little bit about what this bill is trying to achieve. The bill also will make sure that we expand the scope of the act in matters relating to early childhood to create this new government workforce under the act. It also recognises changes to enable the Secretary of the Department of Education to employ staff to deliver on these 50 early learning centres. When we talk about staff in centres, we are including early childhood teachers, educators, trainee educators, centre directors, assistant directors, administration staff and maybe cooks as well. As we promised in the election, these staff will be directly employed by the Secretary of the Department of Education.

Obviously being very passionate about this issue is one thing, but it is another to have a deeper understanding of what the local impacts are. Last year it was a privilege to be part of the Victorian parliamentary internship program, where an intern comes to your electorate and is paired with you. I was really fortunate to work closely with a student, Indigo Coulson, who was studying at Melbourne University. When we discussed what issue we thought would be a good one to investigate for the Bellarine, she and I decided that early childhood would be the main focus. Her report titled ‘Socio-economic and geographic inequality: early childhood education and care in Bellarine’ is an absolutely incredible report that highlights some of the challenges and issues going forward for our local Bellarine communities. I will give her a shout-out: she actually won the internship award for her report. It was fantastic.

For her report, Indigo surveyed families, providers, local government and educators and got a really good snapshot of what was happening across the Bellarine and, depending on where they lived, what type of early childhood service was available to families and the quality as well. She identified suburbs that were definitely in need of additional early learning centres, and I suppose it was probably no surprise that she did identify the St Leonards and Portarlington areas, where one has now been committed to. I am so proud of that report. It is on my website if people would like to look at it closely. It really does highlight the importance of families having easy access to child care – like when you are a new parent and you are navigating a new system. Making sure that it is easy for parents to access their closest or most easily accessible childcare centre and that they feel comfortable with the quality of service that they receive when they are there is really important to families. We do have an incredible number of high-quality early learning centres across the Bellarine; we are very fortunate.

The research does show, though, time and time again that early years development is so critical for our little ones. It does shape their cognitive, emotional and social skills and sets them up, and our educators, as I said, play a pivotal role in ensuring that. I would like to take the opportunity to really thank all of our early education staff for what they are doing with our littlest ones on the Bellarine. You are amazing. Thank you for all the work that you do. Your dedication, your passion and your commitment to nurturing our young minds make such a difference. You are not just educators; you are mentors, role models and champions of our little children’s futures. You have that power to instil the love of learning and you foster that creativity, and we thank you. On this side, the government certainly thank you for that work, and in thanking you for that, we show our support with these initiatives and the things that we have done to support you.

This bill, though, does impact beyond that classroom, and investing into our childhood education is investing into our future. In the electorate of the Bellarine, as I have said, we have some wonderful centres, and I have been really pleased to see some further investment this year and last year into some of those centres to support the programs that are happening. Bush kinder is a wonderful program that gets the children out and about in the natural environment. We have such a great environment on the Bellarine, both in bush and parkland but also in a beach setting. I would like to congratulate Headstart Early Learning Centre Ocean Grove, who I visited the other day and who were recipients of a bush kinder grant; Woodlands House Child Care centre in Ocean Grove; and Lonsdale House Childcare in Point Lonsdale. It is fantastic to see that they will have support for their bush kinder programs. Lonsdale House Childcare in Point Lonsdale and Woodlands House in Ocean Grove also received support for early years assessment and learning tools, which will be really great initiatives for the staff there to be assessing and to be doing best practice in their centres, which is absolutely fantastic. I am really pleased to see that support.

This initiative, though, is not just about dollars and cents. As I have said, it is about investing in our future. It is by investing in early childhood and quality educators that we are setting up our future. We are building a stronger and more inclusive society where every child has the opportunity to thrive. I am proud of what this government has done to accomplish that. Let us continue to champion early childhood education and ensure that every child in Victoria has that chance to reach their full potential.