New governments mean new ministers. For the ECEC sector, that’s Sussan Ley. She was previously Shadow Minister for Childcare and Early Learning, and is now the Assistant Minister for Education, with responsibility for childcare and early learning.

During the campaign, the Coalition released their childcare and early learning policy on the Thursday night before polling day. For this they were rightly criticised.

The policy itself includes a proposal to review and potentially pause some of the foundational requirements of Labor’s National Quality Framework reforms.

This has divided the sector. Some fear that quality standards will stall and potentially be turned back, while others support the review due to immense difficulties meeting Labor’s new requirements.

The review will be particularly welcomed by the for-profit operators in the sector, who extensively lobbied the Coalition in opposition to scale back the reforms.

It is therefore interesting to note that one of Ley’s first acts in her new role was to attend Child Care Queensland and Australian Childcare Alliance’s annual conference — two organisations that represent a significant part of the private sector.

The Coalition have also hinted that the two-year commitment to increase early childhood educator’s wages under Labor’s Early Years Quality Fund may not be honoured.

No more detail about the Government’s plans for the sector is forthcoming, so it seems worthwhile at this time to focus on the last six years and reflect on what Labor’s legacy on early education and care will be.

The statistics alone are significant — over a million children are now in some form of formal childcare. This can be attributed in large part to the increase of the Child Care Rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of out-of-pocket expenses, sparking a huge increase in enrolments.

Their signature legacy in this area will of course be the National Quality Framework (NQF). Agreed by COAG and introduced at the beginning of 2012, the NQF was a significant undertaking – bringing together diverse, uneven and outdated regulatory standards across the states and territories and unifying them under a single framework.

For the first time in Australia, there is now a single standard that every Long Day Care, School Age Care, Family Day Care and Preschool service have to meet — and be regularly assessed to ensure they are meeting it.

That it took this long for a minimum standard to be set for the wellbeing and safety of children in formal childcare was a national disgrace.

A last-minute measure to address the appallingly low wages for early childhood educators, the Early Years Quality Fund, proved to be divisive and inequitable, actually contributing to issues within the sector rather than solving them.

The Labor government did however commit to supporting a wage equity case at Fair Work Australia within two years, with a focus on gender being the primary cause of the low wages (similar to the Social and Community Services Award case).

Labor should be commended for convincing the Coalition State Governments to sign on to at COAG, but the implementation of the reforms have been patchy.

The structural issues facing the sector were, and are, huge. The only thing larger was the capacity of governments, Labor and Liberal, to cheerfully ignore them.

The collapse of ABC Learning in 2008 should have been the catalyst for the newly-installed Rudd government to address the inherent contradictions in having early learning and care for children farmed out to private operators, and then spending billions of dollars to families to subsidise families using those private businesses.

This recipe has created low wages and a lack of professional recognition for the educators who actually do the work, and has allowed the private for-profit sector to set the agenda on early learning.

Over 70 per cent of the sector is now privately operated, putting profits ahead of the benefit of children.

For-profit advocacy groups, such as the Australian Childcare Alliance, have successfully pushed the case with the then-Opposition Coalition Government that the sector is “drowning in red tape”, a blatant lie.

Instead of having the vision to tackle the for-profit operators, the Labor Government essentially continued on with business as usual, continuing to spend billions on rebates instead of investing directly into the sector.

Had it done so, the NQF could have been rolled out and implemented smoothly, protecting the scheme from being dismantled, the likely result under the Coalition.

The childcare sector as a whole was never going to be ready to implement even the beginning of the qualification requirements by 2014. As has been recently reported, organisations are having to seek qualified teachers overseas due to a systemic shortage of locals.

The NQF should have been accompanied with significant funding and support to the sector, and a long-term campaign to gain public support for the benefits of early childhood education.

The conversation should have been shifted from just workplace productivity or economic imperatives, but for the capacity for accessibly, high quality early learning to tackle disadvantage and inequity and invest in Australia’s future.

Labor has gifted the Coalition a major goal on childcare. Their failure to invest the necessary funding and support into the sector has allowed the Coalition to persuasively argue that the reforms are a burden, and are actually making things worse.

The NQF should have been the turning point the sector so badly needs. It should have fundamentally and permanently altered the national perspective on early childhood education in Australia.

But, as with so much of Labor’s time in government, this strong vision was hampered by an inability to actually implement the reforms on the ground.

Instead, it seems likely that for-profit advocacy and a new government happy to buy the line that the NQF is unnecessary bureaucracy will see the prospects for young children severely diminished.

Labor’s mismanagement of the NQF implementation may hamper our fight for recognition and structural reform for years. What a legacy.

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website on 26 September 2013.

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