Here’s a puzzle for you. See if you can guess which of these two statements is false: ‘Annual butchers’ picnic to go vegan this year,’ or ‘Tasmanian teachers’ union opposes extension of public schooling’.

Sorry – it was the second. But don’t be too alarmed that the world is turning upside down. We are assured that nurses will not be opposing additional beds in public hospitals, doctors are not about to refuse payments for new services from Medicare, and social workers, psychologists and dentists all support increased government funding to reach those who need their services but cannot afford them.

Indeed, what profession has ever said to the government that additional public funding to allow more people to benefit from their skills is not welcome? No doubt that is why you guessed the butchers were going vegan – it makes more sense after all.

But don’t stop reading in bewilderment. It actually gets worse. The President of the teachers union (AEU) says “Teachers believe the Government’s focus on sending children to school younger is fundamentally flawed because it overlooks the critical role of parents in determining a child’s education success — this is especially important for disadvantaged families.” Thus the AEU suggests that the Government should focus on expanding services that ‘specialise in educating parents’.

Now for ‘parents’ mostly read ‘mothers’ – since women do twice us much childcare in the home as men. Then we can see that what the AEU is really saying is that Tasmanian mothers, especially those struggling a bit, need more training in how to raise their kids in order to get them ready for teachers to take over once they reach the oldest school starting age in Australia.

But of course the AEU’s ‘fix the mothers’ strategy would work only for women who are not employed and are thus available to attend the parent improvement services proposed. Perhaps the AEU thinks that the disadvantaged mother’s place is in the home.

Is this a peculiarly Tasmanian approach to improving early childhood education, or one modelled on what works elsewhere? Let’s look at Finland, often cited as an example of best practice in early childhood education, where kids start school at seven. But what does that actually mean?

According to the OECD’s latest Education at a Glance annual report, which analyses member states’ education systems using a classification which facilitates international comparisons, children in Australia spend more years in early childhood educational development and less time in pre-primary education, and receive what early childhood education they do mostly part-time and, other than kindy, at cost to their parents.

In contrast, the Finnish early childhood system is mainly full-time and publicly funded – with the majority of three year olds and three quarters of four year olds engaged in the OECD classification called pre-primary education. That explains why Australia spends a lower percentage of its GDP on pre-school education – counting both public and private expenditure – than all other OECD members. Among OECD partner nations, only South Africa and Indonesia spend less.

Consequently, our young people have less of what the OECD describes as ‘extended opportunities’ for all children to ‘improve their use of language and their social skills, start to develop logical and reasoning skills, and talk through their thought processes’ in pre-primary education, where they ‘are also introduced to alphabetical and mathematical concepts, understanding and use of language, and are encouraged to explore their surrounding world and environment.’

That sounds a lot like Kindy and good Prep programs, provided full-time by public early childhood education in Finland from age three to six . Surely we could learn from that now we have an opportunity to rethink, and re-finance, early childhood education in Tasmania?

If the public education we now offer, our teachers’ skills, the curriculum and pedagogy, levels of parental engagement, and Kindy and Prep facilties, are not up to the standard of the Finns, or as well integrated, then let’s work with all early childhood education and care providers – public and private – to make certain that they are.

But let’s not fall in with the AEU’s ‘family first’ approach, which amounts to saying that teachers and schools cannot change, so until kids fit into schools as they are now, they are not welcome in public education.

So crazy as it might sound, let’s put vegan patties on the BBQ to support the butchers of topsy-turvy land. But don’t let that and the teacher’s union – or the ALP – completely spin you out, especially if you are a member of the Legislative Council who will soon be considering the new Education Act. Those who believe in public education, including our primary principals, are still arguing for expanded provision of publicly funded quality education, for all children, as we have since the first education act of 1870. Always against the opposition of those invested in the status quo, or simply unwilling to consider that, with a bit of creative thinking and collaboration, change might actually make the future better than the past.

*Professor Eleanor Ramsay and Professor Michael Rowan …

Education Ambassadors Tasmania

Honorary Professors
Division of Deputy Vice Chancellor (Students and Education)
University of Tasmania

Research Associates
TJRyan Foundation