In defence of red tape

In July, Sussan Ley, the opposition spokesperson for Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, spoke out against the national quality reforms, calling it ‘over-regulation’ and pledging to reduce ‘red tape’ if the Coalition won government.

I was lucky to have a personal meeting with Ms Ley a few weeks ago, where she took the opportunity to deny that the Coalition were planning on rolling back any of the reforms. But it was also clear from that meeting that Ms Ley and the Opposition are focused purely on addressing knee-jerk reactions from the sector on regulations, rather than actually engaging with any of the deeper issues. Ms Ley also seemed to have a dismissive or uninterested attitude to the Early Years Learning Framework.

The issue brings up a broader point about regulation of the ECEC sector. I have absolutely no doubt that Ms Ley could find any number of people who complain about over-regulation. I’ve certainly done enough of it myself.

In my two years as a Centre Director there were large amounts of paperwork, vast quantities of forms to sign and large volumes of strict regulation to strictly adhere to. It was easily the least favourite part of my job, and I took many and varied opportunities (as my wife, colleagues and people popping into the centre to ask for directions will attest) to rail against them.

But here’s the thing. They are absolutely essential.

In ECEC centres, as well as being responsible for their ongoing education and learning, we are legally responsible for the care and wellbeing. In the centre I directed, that was 53 children a day. Most centres being opened these days are upwards of 100. That’s 100 children, per day.

Somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter. Being entrusted into the legal protection of someone else.

Regulation is not there to make people’s lives a living hell (although I may disagree after a couple of hours wading through them). They are there to ensure a standard, and ensure that that standard is met.

ECEC centres, like everything else in this society, are human enterprises. Just like every other sector and profession, some centres will be great, some will not be so great. When you’re dealing with young children, we cannot allow the not-so-great centres to remain that way.

I can handle a bakery producing some low-quality muffins due to a lack of regulation. I can’t handle the centre my daughter attends providing children low-quality education and care and possibly endangering their safety.

It is easy, too easy, to simply claim that red tape and bureaucracy hold enterprising and innovative people back. Regulation in ECEC is a safety net for children and families that ensures centres have to meet a certain standard.

The idea of ‘rolling back’ regulations is not only misguided but frightening. With a low-paid and overworked sector receiving little professional recognition and leaving their work in droves, less regulation will encourage more incidents with children’s health and safety.

To put it bluntly, any ECEC service or director that cannot handle the regulatory burden shouldn’t be in business.

I would suggest to Ms Ley that she focus more on the ‘Early Childhood Learning’ part of her title instead of pandering to anyone’s complaining about over-regulation. The lowering of ratios and raising of qualification standards that are part of the National Quality Framework are integral to lasting quality in the sector.

For everyone else, do what I did – learn to love the red tape: it’s there to support what we do, not drown us.

And for those days when it gets on top of you, I recommend a large glass of red wine.

This article was originally published on the Big Steps website.

By Liam McNicholas

I am an experienced early childhood teacher, writer and advocate. As well as managing community not-for-profit early childhood operations in a variety of roles, I have advocated for children's human rights; the need for investment in early childhood education; and for professional recognition and wages for those working in early childhood education and care.

I am available to be commissioned for freelance writing, editing, event speaking and consulting work.

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