Put down the beach towels. It's time to rummage around the back of the cupboard and dig out the backpacks, the lunch boxes and water bottles.
It's time to reacquaint yourself with a label maker and start sticking names on socks, shoes and sunhats.
The start of the early learning year is almost upon us.
There will be more than a million children under five across Australia attending a child care subsidy-approved early learning service this year. Depending on the child, the family and the circumstances, this can be a time of incredible excitement, nerves, apprehension, overwhelm and just about every other emotion you can name.
Often all at the same time. For children, for parents and for educators.
2022 was a massive year for early childhood education and care. There was extraordinary power in the movement of parents, grandparents, educators, experts and academics, civil society groups and community members who came together to speak up about the ways our early learning system is broken - and demand action to fix it.
One of the biggest moments in a big year was the release of the Mitchell Institute's Childcare deserts report which looked into the availability of early learning. The report findings were extraordinary - more than a third of Australian families live in a childcare desert where available places, within a 20-minute drive, outnumber children under five by 3:1 or more. That means more than a third of families have no hope of getting a place for their child.
It won't surprise you this situation gets worse when you head outside our metropolitan areas. Nearly 45 per cent of families in the regions and 85.3 per cent of people in remote Australia are living in childcare deserts.
Children who attend even one year of quality early learning before they start school are half as likely to arrive at school behind than their peers who miss out.
Children who arrive at school behind do not always catch up. Not being able to access early learning services creates lifelong disadvantage.
It is inexcusable in a country as wealthy and education-focused as Australia that we accept so many communities, children and families missing out.
Of course, for those families who are lucky enough to secure a spot for their child, the big issue is the crippling cost.
The cost of early learning has been a barbeque stopper for a while but last year, thanks to the quiet and determined organisation of thousands of parents, grandparents, educators and advocates, the issue grew beyond the prominence of the backyard.
Early childhood education and care was a top three issue on the federal election agenda and helped secure an increase to the child care subsidy which will come into effect in July this year.
The scheme will cost $4.7 billion over four years and unleash an additional 37,000 full-time workers into the workforce. It will enable more parents, especially mums, to make different decisions about how and when they work, it will ease pressure on family budgets and grow the early learning and development opportunities for young children.
The Victorian and NSW governments also announced historic, bipartisan, multibillion-dollar new early learning packages. At the centre of the NSW government's $5.8 billion commitment is the ambitious introduction of a universal pre-kindergarten in the year before children start primary school.
Victorian three-year-olds will have access to between five and 15 hours of free kinder each week, four-year-olds will receive 15 hours per week.
This is incredible progress that will deliver profound benefits. But, more needs to be done, especially for children, women, families and carers in rural and regional areas. Not being able to access or afford suitable early childhood education and care is a huge issue for all families of young children.
It's a challenge I experienced in my personal life and not being able to create a solution ultimately continues to propel my advocacy work at The Parenthood.
New national polling released last week by Thrive by Five shows the vast majority of regional Australian families (91 per cent) reported a sharp increase in early learning and care costs over the past three years.
We'll hear a lot about growing and strengthening our regions this year. The reality is no plan for growing jobs and economic development in regional or rural areas will work unless it comes with a significant increase in funding for early learning and childcare that supports the participation of parents, and women in particular, in the workforce.
Investing more in early learning and early childhood educators in our regions is vital. This is also the crunch year for addressing the centrepiece issue of the workforce crisis in the early learning sector.
Early educators must be valued, supported and paid better for their skilled, valuable and demanding work. We've long ago left behind the misguided notion that early educators are simply babysitters - they are brain builders.
Their work, quite literally, shapes the minds of our youngest citizens and our future. The way educators are paid must reflect the enormity of the role they play. And fast.
Since COVID, the number of educators leaving the sector has accelerated dramatically.
Staff vacancies have more than doubled and services across the country are struggling to attract and retain staff.
Without early educators, there is no early education. Without early education, many parents cannot access work. Given the tight labour market, no employer in the country can afford to lose additional staff.
We need an immediate intervention to not just retain our early educators, but to attract back educators who have left and to appeal to the educators of the future. This is vital not just for building a strong and resilient economy, but for building strong and resilient communities and setting children up for lifelong success.
Every child in Australia deserves to realise their full potential, regardless of where they live or what their parents earn or don't earn. An equitable, quality early education system that supports children in those formative early years is critical.
On average one in five children in Australia arrive at school behind. In rural and remote Australia, it's two in five children. Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, it's almost half.
The evidence is very clear that children who arrive at school behind rarely catch up. That is simply unacceptable. The time is now for bold early learning reform that changes this trajectory.
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