Probably, everyone agrees that the infant years are the most important in setting up a life. Educational success, good health, personal confidence, social skills, the capacity to care and love, they all rely unfairly on what happens in those early years.
Yet, as I've written here before, Australian governments lack commitment to early childhood services. Embarrassingly, Australia is fifth from the bottom of the 36 OECD nations - the richest nations in the world - in its spending on early childhood education.
Imagine a farmer not tilling her most fertile field?
According to the 2016 census, only 45 per cent of the 7942 kids aged three years in the Hunter attend pre-school. Of the 8801 Hunter kids aged four years, attendance at pre-school rises to 64 per cent. These figures are around the nation's average. That is, they are poor.
Put another way, across the Hunter in 2016 there were 4157 kids aged three years and 2477 kids aged four years who for some reason were denied access to the formal learning seen as essential for their educational development. If these were figures from a small Pacific Island nation we'd donate money to help.
It's not as if Australian governments are unaware of the problem. In 2017 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) - the organisation charged with coordinating state and federal government actions - received a report, Lifting Our Game, which identified the difficulties parents face in accessing early childhood education for their kids.
A concern of the report is the confusion between child care and child education. In NSW, according to the report, most children experience a preschool program at a long day care centre or at a non-government pre-school. For parents with kids in long day care, there is often confusion about when, or if, the educational curriculum is being delivered.
The confusion has a simple origin: refusal by governments in Australia to take the lead in pre-school education so that resources and staffing are guaranteed, irrespective of where a child lives or the family the child is born into.
The child care-preschool sector needs sorting, say the report's authors, so that preschooling becomes universal for every child. This, says the report, would be the "single most impactful reform Australia could undertake" to improve education standards at all levels in the nation.
A second concern of the report is the widespread failure across preschools and child care centres to provide a skilled and stable workforce. A report by the Productivity Commission, also in 2017, says for NSW only 15 per cent of contact staff in child care centres and preschools have bachelor degrees. A problem of handing major responsibility for preschooling to the private and voluntary sectors is that paying decent wages for good staff eats into the profit levels of owner-investors, or stresses the meagre budgets of community-based providers.
Since receiving the Lifting Our Game report, COAG's politicians and bureaucrats have done little more than kick the early childhood can down the road.
If these were figures from a small Pacific Island nation we'd donate money to help.
In the recent federal election, the early childhood platforms of both major parties concentrated on child care subsidies rather than responding to the Lifting Our Game call for a major overhaul of the sector. And replicating the poor research of many of its policies, the Labor Party's early childhood offering featured the bizarre idea that direct government subsidy of the miserable pay packets of child care workers could somehow resolve the sector's problems in attracting and holding skilled staff.
What is disturbing about the census figures on preschooling in the Hunter is the absence of extra effort in districts where school performance and levels of post-school training are below par. Without naming anywhere in particular, the pattern shows levels of preschooling lower in those towns and suburbs where educational performance is already lagging. That said, no town or suburb in the Hunter has boasting rights. Nowhere is preschooling at the universal level that Lifting Our Game says should be the national benchmark.
Nothing succeeds like education in preparing for the future: getting a job, staying healthy, living fruitfully among others. And nothing generates education success like a good start in infancy. Lifting Our Game isn't rocket science, just good sense. Let's not kick the report down the road any further.