Greg Hutchinson - a business leader says why early learning is vital for Australia's future

Greg Hutchinson AM is Chair of the Paul Ramsay Foundation and an Advisory Partner at Bain & Company, working with major corporations on their strategic growth and operational change programs. He was involved in the establishment of GoodStart Early Learning and serves on its board of directors.

Greg spoke at the State of Early Learning Children's Week event at Parliament House Canberra, hosted by the Early Learning Everyone Benefits campaign.

My sincere thanks (also) to the children from YMCA Holder Early Learning for leading us in Acknowledging that this is Ngunnawal Country on which we meet.  I also wish to express my respect and admiration for Ngunnawal elders past and present, for their enlightened care of this challenging land, that Australians now drawn from all corners of the earth call home.


I am speaking today primarily as a businessman and social entrepreneur but what I am about to say also matters immensely to me as a father, grandfather, philanthropist and Australian.  I have spent 35 years as a strategy consultant, advising global corporations on growth strategy, always with an analytic underpinning. 

So, I enjoy a good set of numbers, and the state of Early Learning illuminates some good news and also some challenges that we must urgently attend to.

The good news is that the participation of 4-year-olds in pre-school has increased substantially, from 12% in 2008 to 91% in 2015. The Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments and the Early Learning sector should be congratulated on this outcome for children.

There is, however, a very worrying set of statistics: 23% of 6-year-olds still start school developmentally vulnerable. This is the challenge we all face.

It matters because we know that if children start school behind, they are likely to stay behind.


  • Currently 24% of 13-14-year-olds fail to meet expected standards of academic performance, particularly in literacy and numeracy. Most of those will fail to complete secondary school;[1]
  • And 26% of 24-year-olds are not engaged in full-time work, education or training.
  • Let me emphasise this – because there is something profound in this set of numbers. What we are seeing today is:
  • A quarter (to a fifth) of all children are developmentally vulnerable at 6 years
  • A quarter fail to meet literacy and numeracy standards at secondary school, and …
  • A quarter of young adults cannot access the opportunities that make for a strong and competitive society – education, employment and participation in the community.


So we know by six years that a quarter of the population are unlikely to have the skills to unlock their full potential.  That’s 1 seat out of every 4 at the table that will remain empty.

A precondition for success in any organisation is human capital.  The best business, community and government organisations are powered by skilled, talented people. It’s exciting to see high performing teams in action and to see the results and impact they can accomplish.

Unfortunately, the situation in Australia is that for many organisations this doesn’t happen – and our community is poorer as a result. A recent report released by the OECD shows that Australia has 3 million working adults with low literacy and numeracy skills. These are adults who have come through our education system and are now struggling to perform at their best[2].

But while this worries me now, the future is even more challenging. By the time the children we see now in early learning are adults they will enter a workforce that has been transformed by artificial intelligence and advanced robotics. The World Economic Forum estimates that two-thirds of children entering primary school today will work in jobs that do not yet exist.[3]  

Employers are already reporting that the skills they value in employees are those that will enable people and business to cope with the rapid technological changes that are upon us now.  In addition to language and numeracy, they are seeking - curiosity, creativity, problem-solving, resilience, flexibility, empathy, cooperation and communications. These are often the skills where children are developmentally vulnerable when they enter school. This is an urgent call to action for all of us, to help the children of today build the skills to navigate the rapidly changing economy of tomorrow.

The good news is that if we invest in children’s early learning, the economic return is significant.  Even the former Governor of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, said in 2012:

“Economically speaking, early childhood programs are a good investment…. Very few alternative investments can promise that kind of return.”

Which is why the Chinese Government is currently undertaking a massive investment to give all 3-5-year-olds access to early learning. As my friend Prof Ted Mulhuish from Oxford likes to point out, they are not doing it to be kind to the ‘little kiddies’ but because they want to be the economic super power by 2050.

I am one of a growing number of business leaders, many of us involved in the Front Project, who are convinced that investing in early learning is an investment in our children and our society to reach full potential.  This is an investment in our future economic, competitive and societal performance and one of the best investment returns we can find.

For this reason, I welcome this report*. And a call to action for all of us today is to put aside individual interest and work together to build a common narrative explaining the critical role of high-quality Early Learning.  A narrative that will stay with generations of leaders in government, business and community and most importantly with generations of parents and families as they play the central role in building a cohesive, competitive and high performing Australia.   

**View and download State of Early Learning in Australia 2017 report here

[1] State of Victoria’s Children Report 2015, p. 48


[3] World Economic Forum, “Chapter 1: The Future of Jobs and Skills,” January 2016. [Online]. Available: future-of-jobs-2016/chapter-1-the-future-of-jobs-and-skills/#view/ fn-1