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Have we learned our ABCs?

This past week marked the fourth anniversary of the appointment of voluntary administrators Ferrier Hodgson to childcare company ABC Learning, after its stunning public collapse in 2008.

With structural changes aiming to improve the quality of early childhood education and care (the National Quality Framework) beginning to roll out this year and a campaign to improve the wages of early childhood educators making news, it’s a timely anniversary.

ABC Learning was at one time the largest publicly traded childcare operator in the world, at its peak worth $4.1 billion.

It was regularly held up as a shining example of the “free-market” approach to providing early education and care. Its more than 1200 centres (including centres in New Zealand) were used as evidence of the success of John Howard’s changes to the sector — removing the subsidy from service operators and channeling it directly to families.

It was, as we now know, all an incredible sham. The business was in financial turmoil and its founder Eddy Groves is still under economic and legal scrutiny.

In 2008 Labor Government was returned to power, and in 2010 would describe the collapse of ABC Learning as “the greatest ever shock the Australian child care market has experienced”. A Department of Education report, “The State of Childcare in Australia”, identified that “unfettered growth in the provision of corporate child care created an unacceptable risk of serious disruption in the market”.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane wrote in 2008 that the collapse of ABC Learning was not just a business failure, but a serious government policy failure. Keane recommended that “Julia Gillard (then minister for education) should be undertaking a fundamental reconsideration of child care support in Australia,” perhaps including a takeover of ABC’s centres. The Labor Government was continuing the lack of long-term strategic thinking about the goals and growth of the sector, despite investing billions of dollars through subsidies.

Lindsay Tanner, then finance minister, quickly dismissed any notion of a government takeover of ABC. This didn’t come as a shock; if the government became involved in the provision of early education and care to that extent they would have had to take responsibility for the systemic and structural problems that are facing the sector, as well as ABC’s debt.

Not a lot has changed in the four years since ABC’s collapse. Although a large private operator hasn’t emerged to take the place of ABC, around 6000 centres are managed by private, for-profit companies, 71 per cent of the centres in Australia.

The 30 per cent direct rebate to families was increased in 2008 to 50 per cent, and government funding to the sector (mostly indirect, through family subsidies) will reach a projected $22.3 billion over the next four years. Accordingly, the number of children now accessing some form of early education and care has jumped to around 1.3 million.

Yet, despite this significant amount of money, the issues facing the sector have only deepened and become more acute. Workforce retention and turnover is reaching endemic levels and presents a looming disaster as qualification requirements become stricter.

Fees are steadily rising to meet new quality requirements and waiting lists have ballooned, particularly for infants.

But the biggest issue still to face the sector and the community is the one that should have been faced four years ago — the incompatibility of private companies, operating in the sector to make a profit, and quality care.

A recent and timely report from Canada, which has a similar early education subsidy model to Australia, has revealed the inherent contradiction of private operators managing centres while being effectively subsidised by government funding.

Not only does it encourage the kind of financial risk that led to the rise and fall of ABCLearning, the report found, but private operators are effectively paid to push for higher profit margins — which means more children in less space, fewer qualifications and lower wages. All of which can have drastic impacts of the quality of children’s learning and safety.

The same pattern can be seen in Australia. With representation from the Australian Childcare Alliance, which claims to “represent the future of Australian childcare,” the private operators are able to employ a lobbyist to the government to directly advocate for less regulation and caution against raising working conditions for educators.

It should be self-evident that the provision of education and care for Australian children is the responsibility of the community and the government, not private operators. This is not only economically obvious — if the private approach was the best approach government subsidies would be unnecessary — but also ethically obvious.

As was presented to the Government in a submission by Price Waterhouse Coopers in 2011, the only sustainable and equitable model that benefits young children and their families is a government funded and managed model that allows for universal access for all children, regardless of their socio-economic situation.

Community organisations, which currently only provide 26 per cent of early education and care, must work together to present a united front on this issue. Private operators have been effective at coming together and presenting a single voice on issues, which is why the media turn to them for quotes and analysis of early education issues.

The government is currently working with the sector to the implement the National Quality Framework package, which will improve the quality of early education and care services, including lower staff-to-child ratios and higher qualification requirements for early childhood educators.

While the private operators warn of cost increases and burdensome regulation, most experts in the sector actually argue that the changes, although welcome, go only a very small way to creating greater learning outcomes for young children. A lot more needs to be done.

The Gillard Government must face up to the issue that is starting it right in the face. The $22.3 billion it is currently using to subsidise private operators would be far better invested in completely overhauling the sector.

Community organisations are the only operators currently able to fully and ethically represent children and families, but a reluctance to engage in advocacy has been a major failure.

That said, Goodstart Early Learning publicly supported early childhood educators’ union United Voice’s “Big Steps” campaign for government-funded professional wage subsidies for early childhood educators. Ironically, Goodstart Early Learning is the not-for-profit consortium that now manages the majority of centres that ABC Learning mismanaged and left out to dry. There’s a lesson there.

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website.

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A backwards step for German early childhood education?

One of the general criticisms of the stipend is that it will encourage women to stay out of the workplace for longer after having a child and that it keeps young kids away from the educational opportunities offered by public daycare.

German daycares are beyond capacity, and some believe the child-care stipend is merely a consolation for parents who might not have the means to get their kids a daycare spot. The government is aiming to increase capacity by August 2013, when another law guaranteeing parents a daycare spot for their kids comes into effect.

“Germany adopts child-care stipend for parents”, (Deutsche Welle)

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ECEC recruitment and retention issues are still being ignored

Next year will be a big one for East Brunswick Kindergarten and Childcare. A space that will cater for up to 33 children will open and staff will need to be hired.

However, acting childcare co-director Jane Arnett said it could be difficult to attract quality staff because of low wages for graduates and even experienced workers.

“If early childhood workers could get more money, it could attract a better quality of worker. Graduates get just $18 an hour and a person who’s worked for 10 years could get the same,” she says. “It’s a very poorly paid industry.”

“East Brunswick childcare workers take to parliament”, Alana Schetzer (Melbourne Times Weekly)

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The rush to open as many new centres as possible ignores the issue of who will staff them

Even if a central waitlisting system could alleviate some of the frustration with finding a childcare place, at the end of the day there are just not enough inner-city spots to go around.

This is due to land availability and zoning issues, according to federal Early Childhood and Child Care Minister Kate Ellis.

A spokeswoman for Ms Ellis said the federal government has no limit on the number of childcare spots it will fund with the childcare rebate, so demand is increasing while supply isn’t keeping pace.

“We are trying to rattle the cage a little and get states and territories moving on this issue because unfortunately the ball is in their court on this. Local governments have crazy regulations in place prohibiting new centres opening up rather than encouraging it,” she said.

“The wearying wait for inner-city childcare”, Clarissa Keil (The Age)

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Canberra takes Big Steps for ECEC educators

This Saturday, November 17, teachers, educators, families and children are coming together in a show of support for Canberra’s early childhood education and care workforce.

Big Steps Day is taking place around Australia in support of the campaign for professional wages in the early childhood sector. As well as being a fun family day out with food and entertainment, it has another important purpose.

This year saw the beginning of the National Quality Agenda – a Government framework to improve quality outcomes for children in childcare centres through lower ratios and higher qualification requirements.

However, the starting wage for an early childhood educator is just over $18 an hour.

This, on top of lengthy and ever-changing shifts to meet opening hours and difficulties meeting staffing requirements, has led to an incredible 180 educators leaving the sector every week.

The lack of recognition of the work educators do now no longer affects just the educators themselves. Staff turnover and recruitment challenges for organisations are having a direct and lasting impact on Canberra’s children and families.

Research has shown that the first five years of a child’s life set the scene for the rest of their development – the fastest amount of brain growth and “wiring for learning” occurs before they even set foot in a school.

Early childhood educators are no longer just babysitters. They play a key role in supporting children’s learning, through observations, planned experiences and play.

With a national conversation continuing around the shape of Australia’s education system into the future, and a vision from the Prime Minister that we are in the Top 5 in the world when it comes to education, it is impossible to ignore the early years.

But with a system that is driving educators away and a lack of community recognition for the hard work that goes into every day working with young children, we will not be able to achieve the goal of having equitable access to education for all of our children.

As well as encouraging a lifelong love of learning and providing children opportunities to become aware and engaged citizens, early childhood education and care is fundamental to a great deal of Canberra families.

It’s clear from Canberran waiting list times, particularly infant spaces, that the current system is not meeting the needs of our community. Simply opening new centres (as promised by the ACT Government) will not solve this issue if the mass exodus of educators continues. The ACT faces the very real risk of a spate of centre closures in the next few years.

So I urge all Canberrans to head into Garema Place on Saturday at 11am and support the hard-working and under-appreciated early childhood educators who hold so much of the promise of future generations in their hands.

This article was originally published on the City News website.

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Will adding to the family subsidy address the actual issues with ECEC?

While the government and opposition have put forward competing plans for paid parental leave to ease the financial burden on families with young children, childcare remains a significant cost for women who want to resume their careers.

Mr Jeremenko [The Tax Institute’s Senior Tax Counsel] is to call for a reconsideration of rules that define childcare as a private expense that cannot be counted as a tax deduction.

“Push for tax claim on cost of childcare”, David Crowe (The Australian, paywalled)

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Clover Moore urges council to address shortfall in Sydney ECEC provision

Parents, particularly with children under two, are waiting years to find childcare near their home or work. This is not sustainable for parents, for our city or for our economy.

Providing parents with affordable, quality childcare makes economic sense and ultimately benefits everyone. The old saying, it takes a village to bring up a child, has never been more true.

“Time to stop playing around with childcare”, Clover Moore (Herald Sun)

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The benefits of early interevention

“No single approach to education works for all children with autism – that is why it is a ”spectrum” and that is why there is a broad range of supports available in the education system – from the jelly bean jar or teacher’s aide support in mainstream class, to high support with high staff ratios in specialist autism schools.”

“Not all disabilities are created equal”, Kathryn Wicks (SMH)

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Another bandaid solution?

“The new standards are designed to transform centres into learning, rather than babysitting, environments but have been criticised by the opposition and some parts of the childcare sector for being too expensive and ultimately costing parents through increased fees.”

“Grants to be tripled to staff in childcare”, Patricia Karvelas (The Australian, paywalled)

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Goodstart Early Learning continue their positive advocacy

[Goodstart Early Learning] Chief executive Julia Davison said the shift to quality early learning meant staff needed higher wages. “For us to be able to continue to deliver quality early learning and achieve positive outcomes for children, we need to be able to attract and retain qualified and experienced early learning professionals,” Ms Davison said.

“Childcare giant backs pay claim, if government pays” (The Australian, paywalled)