Billionaire philanthropist Nicola Forrest challenges Anthony Albanese to take charge of overhaul of early education

A billionaire philanthropist has challenged Anthony Albanese to take charge of an impending overhaul of Australia’s early education system to ensure the sweeping reforms stay on track.

Nicola Forrest, who co-founded the Minderoo Foundation with mining magnate husband Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest in 2001, said the Prime Minister had a unique opportunity to seize on the growing political focus on early education and its potential to allow more women to rejoin the workforce.

Nicola Forres has challenged Anthony Albanese to take charge of an impending overhaul the early education system.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Labor has promised to lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent for the first child in care for all families earning up to $530,000, which would reduce both the cost and employment disincentives for women.

It has also signalled it wants to expand the system to offer universal childcare as an economic reform and has committed to developing a new strategy to improve the wellbeing, education and development of young children.

In an interview, Forrest and the man in charge of her Thrive By Five campaign for better childhood education, former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill, said an ambitious reform program was not something Albanese “could just handball to a minister”.

“He wants to put universal childcare up there with Medicare and the NDIS – all great Labor reforms,” Weatherill said.

“To match up that commitment he needs to make sure that he’s in charge of it, and it’s not just left to others.

“It will get hard and it will require the strength of the office of prime minister to make it happen.”

Forrest said the reforms needed a whole of government approach.

“The prime minister taking the lead with his other ministers would make a big difference.”

Early Childhood Education Minister Anne Aly is in charge of the subsidy reforms and has said the terms of reference for a review of universal childcare would be handed to the Productivity Commission within the first 100 days of Labor taking office.

Both NSW and Victoria have also committed to moving towards a year of free, play-based education in the year before school.

Under Weatherill, Thrive By Five has been campaigning for major reforms that would include giving families access to three days per week of affordable, quality early childhood education and care as soon as they want it, as well as 12 months’ paid parental leave.

It has funded two influential research reports on the issue, including a Mitchell Institute study released earlier this year that found more than a third of Australians live in neighbourhoods where there was only one childcare place for every three children.

Weatherill said the NSW and Victorian reforms were a big step forward towards Thrive By Five’s vision of affordable education for all children under five.

“We envisage it would be built out in stages,” he said. “We encourage all jurisdictions to go as fast as they possibly can. It’s good we have a competitive race to the top.”

Weatherill said the most significant challenge was ensuring early childhood educators were paid properly and treated as professionals.

“They’re going to have to do something to stabilise the bleeding of the workforce. Turnover is the enemy of quality,” he said. “Early educators build skills and capabilities the longer they work in the field. It’s beyond tragic to see people exiting the sector.”

Forrest wants to see more integration between services when it comes to looking after young children, as one in five arrived at schools with developmental delays. “Those who are in between [health and education] fall between the cracks,” she said.

Albanese’s office was contacted for comment.

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