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The importance of early childhood education in the ACT

As the Shadow Minister for Families, Youth and Community Services, I am delighted to speak on the matter before us this afternoon: the importance of early childhood education in the ACT.

On this point, Madam Speaker, the research is clear. Brain development is most rapid in the early years of life. As Jack Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips have noted, the human brain develops the vast majority of its neurons, and is at its most receptive to learning, between birth and three years of age. The intake of new information during this period is critical to the formation of active neural pathways.

These pathways in turn play a strong – though not entirely determinative – role in a child’s lifetime social, emotional and educational outcomes. Patterns laid down early tend to be very persistent, and some have lifelong consequences. For example, as pointed out by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, studies both here and internationally ‘have shown that children’s literacy and numeracy skills at age 4–5 are a good predictor of academic achievement in primary school’.

Consequently, children need to be exposed to high-quality stimulation, support and nurturance in the early years, and when they aren’t, their development can be seriously affected. For many children, this high-quality early learning takes place primarily in the home, supplemented by community interactions. For this reason, we need to encourage families and community circles to be supportive and effective in their roles in children’s lives. Research indicates that children who experience a warm, stable, loving and stimulating home life characterised by active learning opportunities and quality personal interactions will develop the deep neural pathways necessary for their future development.

Some children, however, will not find the full range of stimulation, support and nurturance at home. Research suggests that these kids benefit from attending high-quality education and care programs in the years before school. To be effective, these programs need to supported by the community, culturally appropriate, stable in their staffing, and provided by capable educators. Sadly, children who attend early learning programs of poor quality actually show poorer outcomes at school entry, according to the research.

Madam Speaker, I personally grew up in Tonga and had no opportunity for formal early childhood education. Thankfully, when my mother couldn’t look after me because she had to work, my grandparents took the responsibility to care for me. As a result, my relationship with my grandparents grew and strengthened because of that precious time that we had together. Every day, they educated me in things of great importance, and for that I am indebted to them.

Before coming into this Assembly, I was a full-time mother of five children. Because we wanted to recreate for my children the close bond and care that I had enjoyed with my grandparents during my early years, my husband and I made a commitment for me to stay home whilst he finished his studies. We lived on $360 a fortnight with three children under the age of three during that time. Then, after seven years of university study, we received a modest single income for our family, which had by then increased to five children.

It was difficult but doable, and I will forever cherish the opportunity that I had to be home with my five kids and serve as both their nurturer and their teacher. I have been especially satisfied watching them grow up and perform well academically. For example, our eldest – and I’m lucky to know this since, like many boys his age, he rarely tells us anything – is currently in a program at college where he is earning university credit in megatronics from the ANU, and our eldest daughter is currently a straight-A student at high school.

I hope you will excuse the personal narrative, Madam Speaker, but my experience as a mother has left me with great desire that all children in the ACT and beyond reach their full potential. Consequently, we should do all that we can to strengthen families and to provide for children who are at risk of poor developmental and educational outcomes. As adults, we have an awesome responsibility to guide, nurture and teach the younger generations.

Thank you.

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