Why ECEC is not over-regulated

Kids banned from blowing out candles on birthday cakes. Centres fined $50,000 for changing two nappies at the same time. Centres closing under the weight of bureaucracy — is overregulation the biggest threat to early childhood education? Only if you listen to the tabloids.

In 2007, the Labor Government set the goal of raising standards in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) Centres. This led to the 2012 launch of the National Quality Framework (NQF), a package of reforms to the sector that included new qualification requirements for educators, lowering of ratios in some states and territories, and a new national oversight body — the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. The reforms are to be rolled out in stages until 2020.

The majority of community not-for-profit providers have enthusiastically backed the NQF reforms, citing international research that stresses the long-term importance of targeted and quality early learning programs, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Private operators have bitterly opposed the reforms, citing the need to raise fees for families and the burdensome nature of the new regulations. In South Australia, some have threatened to mobilise families in Early Childhood and Childcare Minister Kate Ellis’ electorate.

Sussan Ley, the opposition spokesperson for childcare and early childhood learning, has regularly spoken out against the Government’s reforms, calling them “over-regulation” and pledging to reduce “red tape” if the Coalition wins government. This has of course been gleefully taken up by a right-wing press eager to attribute the “dead hand of government regulation” to anything that sits still long enough.

I was lucky to have a personal meeting with Ley in 2012 where she took the opportunity to deny that the Coalition was planning on rolling back the NQF reforms. But it was also clear from that meeting that 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. She also seemed dismissive of the Early Years Learning Framework, the early learning guide for early childhood teachers and educators.

I have absolutely no doubt that Ley could find any number of people who complain about over-regulation. I’ve certainly done enough of it myself.

In my role as a centre director there are volumes of strict regulation that must be adhered to — not to mention the paperwork. But they are 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 of children. Most centres being opened these days are licenced for upwards of 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 of filling out forms). They are there to mark 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 baking 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 simplistic and misguided, but frightening.

With a low paid and overworked sector receiving little professional recognition and leaving their work in droves, less regulation will result in 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. As someone with 10 years experience in the sector, I find the new regulations far clearer, understandable and supportive.

One of the goals of the NQF reforms was to remove unnecessary bureaucracy, particularly at the state and territory level, and create a single set of national regulations. To a huge extent, this has happened.

The Opposition and media have delighted in pointing out obscure regulations as evidence of the “nanny-state”. That said, the Opposition would be the first to cry foul and insist on inquiries and investigations into any potential serious incidents in an ECEC centre.

I would suggest to Ley that she focus more on the “Early Childhood Learning” part of her title instead of pandering to complaints 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.

The reforms of the NQF are a step in the right direction, and need to be steadily built upon and expanded. Rolling them back would not only be disastrous for the sector and for children, but would directly put children at risk of harm.

This story was originally published on the New Matilda website.

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