Putting early childhood education front and foremost

Anyone working across early childhood education and care (ECEC) may have encountered an organisation quietly driving improvements in ECEC access, experiences and outcomes for Australian children – the Front Project.

Front Project’s founding CEO Jane Hunt

Based in Melbourne with a national outlook, the Front Project’s founding CEO Jane Hunt (pictured, above right), an internationally awarded systems change entrepreneur, and her team are committed to finding ways for all children to have equal opportunities to reach their full potential.

“We all want our children to be more and have more than we had, and early learning is an essential part of making this possible,” Hunt said.

Changing the system

To help ensure Australia’s ECEC system is equipped to set up children for happier and healthier lives, the Front Project applies a ‘systems change’ lens to its work. This approach considers the entire ECEC system, to understand how each part intersects with others, and the impacts for our broader society.

“Our systems change approach ensures we can identify the best opportunities to deliver the most benefits to children, their families, our communities and our economy,” Hunt said.

“To effectively change the system, we need to be able to work across all of its different parts at the same time. This isn’t possible for just one organisation or individual – it relies on collaboration.”

The Front Project’s Apiary Fellowship and Future Tracks programs are two initiatives enhancing collaboration across the sector. The Apiary Fellowship brings together individuals with wide-ranging perspectives of ECEC to learn more about each other’s experiences and take action to create lasting change.

Future Tracks helps educators enhance the quality and impact of their work by supporting them to ‘upskill’ to become early childhood teachers.

Through these collaborations, the Front Project has learned more deeply about the different daily experiences of people working in all roles, in a variety of settings, right across the sector. They have determined that more people should be able to benefit from peer support and access to new ideas to enhance their work, so are launching an online community to assist with this.

“The online community is a place for ECEC professionals to connect, share insights for best practice and work together to address any issues they encounter,” Hunt said.

“Seeing the commitment to improving children’s lives in the Apiary and Future Tracks reiterates that this sector has what it takes to create and sustain meaningful change.”

Gathering evidence

Another key initiative of the Front Project is contributing to the evidence base to show the benefits of ECEC to even more people, especially leaders in government and business who can help influence change.

The first pieces of research from the Front Project successfully caught the attention of both business and government because they clearly explained, for the first time in Australia, how ECEC impacts economic growth.

The Front Project worked with PwC to deliver the first Australian analysis of the economic impact of investing in early learning in the year before school – A Smart Investment for a Smarter Australia. This landmark report found that for every dollar invested, Australia receives $2 back over a child’s life.

“That’s a higher economic return than many of our nation-building infrastructure projects,” Hunt said.

“Some benefits can be seen immediately, and returns continue as children become adults.”

For example, the cognitive benefits for children who receive a quality early childhood education can be linked to $1.06 billion in higher earnings over a lifetime and a further $495 million in higher taxes paid to government.

They followed up with a report revealing that Australian governments spend $15.2 billion each year managing social problems that could be prevented by optimising investment in the early years.

Since then, the Front Project has continued to promote the economic benefits that ECEC delivers through helping parents return to work and improving children’s future career opportunities. In doing so, they have secured support for ECEC from influential organisations such as the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) and Chief Executive Women (CEW).

Raising voices

The Front Project moved the spotlight over to direct experiences with ECEC in the 2021 report, Work and play: Understanding how Australian families experience early childhood education and care.

Produced with independent research from Heartward Strategic, this report analysed responses from nearly 1700 parents and carers across Australia to gather a firsthand account of their needs, choices and experiences of ECEC.

Hunt said that the report shows, “there is no doubt that parents understand and deeply value the crucial role that ECEC plays in the lives of their children and entire families, and they consider early years educators and teachers to be at the heart of quality ECEC experiences.”

More than 80 percent of surveyed parents and carers agreed that ECEC professionals have a significant impact on young children’s learning and wellbeing, and more than 70 percent said they support changing pay and conditions to reflect the importance of ECEC work.

This research follows a series of publications across 2020 that asked teachers and educators, parents and carers and even children about their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic – these also showed resounding appreciation for ECEC.

“Parents who have stayed home with their children have deepened their appreciation for ECEC services, acknowledging the education and wellbeing it provides for children and the stability it creates for families,” Hunt said.

“And children shared how much they love and care about participating in ECEC, calling for ‘fake kindy’ to end during lockdown so they could see their favourite teacher and friends.”

What’s next?

The Front Project will mark five years into its journey this year, and Hunt said more Australians are understanding the value of ECEC than ever before.

“There is increasing attention on the importance of supporting ECEC so children can learn and develop, parents and carers can work, and families and communities can flourish.

“We will continue to connect with people who are creating changes in children’s lives each day until all Australian children, in every postcode, can access the quality ECEC that they need to lead happy and healthy lives.”

Find out more about the Front Project and subscribe for updates at www.thefrontproject.org.au/keep-in-touch