The loss of the PSCs will make for a less inclusive sector

From July, the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector will face some significant changes to the way support to improve quality approaches is provided. The Federal Government will cease funding Professional Support Coordinators (PSCs) in each State and Territory, while Inclusion Support Providers (ISPs) will continue with an expanded funding framework.

Additional funding to support inclusion issues is of course very welcome. The current Inclusion Support system has been underfunded for many years, particularly in the funding able to be provided to services to be able to raise the educator:child ratio to support inclusive practice. But what will this additional funding achieve, and is it worth the loss of the PSCs?

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Senate Report reveals sector is taking a huge gamble supporting the Jobs for Families Package

The partisan report from the Senate Committee hearings into the Jobs for Families Package clearly articulate the Government’s view of ECEC as parent welfare, not education for children.

After consultations, public hearings and duelling economic modelling at ten paces, the long-awaited Senate report into the Jobs for Families has been released. Predictably, the Government-majority Committee has recommended the Senate pass the package as it currently stands. Labor and the Greens delivered dissenting reports.

For advocates in the sector with a focus on children (not workforce participation with a side order of children’s rights), it’s a tough read.

Continue reading “Senate Report reveals sector is taking a huge gamble supporting the Jobs for Families Package”

Three years on, what has the Government achieved in early childhood policy?

Three years, three Ministers, two Departments, one Productivity Commission Inquiry – Zero progress.

Today’s announcement from the Prime Minister that we could be heading to the polls as soon as July marks as good a time as any to reflect on the Abbott/Turnbull Government’s achievements in early childhood policy since 2013.

Well, at least this won’t take too long.

Access to and affordability of ECEC was one of the big issues in the 2013 election. The then-Opposition Coalition had campaigned hard on ensuring a better-structured sector that would be more affordable to families. This was primarily to be achieved through a Productivity Commission inquiry.

Tony Abbott and the Coalition won the election, and the inquiry was set in motion. Sussan Ley was appointed as the Minister for the sector. Her time in the role can mostly be marked by the phrases “we’ll wait and see what the Productivity Commission recommends” and “it’s all Labor’s fault”, as well as overseeing an unnecessary fight over Universal Access Preschool funding with every single state and territory and floating thought-bubbles about Government-funded nannies.

Ley’s tenure as Minister marked no actual policy direction or announcements. Her support for the National Quality Framework was tenuous at best, and her relationship with the sector was poor. I imagine she was as happy to see the back of ECEC policy as we were to see her move on to Health.

The biggest milestone of the Age of Ley was the Productivity Commission (PC) report into the sector, which promised to be a game-changing proposal for fundamental structural reform. In the end – not so much. Two years on, the PC’s Final Report has all but vanished from the discussion. It ended up being an extremely lengthy exercise in fiddling around the edges which, while disappointing, was inevitable given the restriction placed on the PC to only make proposals within the current budget for ECEC.

The Commission finally reported to the Government in November 2014, meaning that any proposed budget changes wouldn’t be in place until the next Federal Budget in May 2015. Getting on to two years after they were elected.

Keen to ensure that the sector wouldn’t be bored during this waiting period, Tony Abbott followed up his Grocery Code of Conduct by putting Ley out of everyone’s misery, shifting ECEC out of Education and making it the responsibility of children’s friend and advocate Scott Morrison.

Morrison, fresh from overseeing the mental, physical and emotional torture of children in island concentration camps, went full-tilt into “Loveable Old Scott” mode, promising to sort out the funding of the sector and the attendant affordability issues.

Morrison introduced the foundations of the “Jobs for Families” package that is currently before the Senate. That is literally about all I can actually remember from his time in the role. Good work Scott, have a go at Treasurer as a reward.

Which brought us the downfall of Abbott, the introduction of the agile and nimble Malcolm Turnbull as PM and the appointment of fresh-faced Simon Birmingham as the third Minister to take the wheel of ECEC policy.

Birmingham has continued trying to get the Jobs for Families Package through the Parliament, with the innovative and agile tactic of making it even worse.

It’s hard to believe that three years on, and literally nothing has happened in ECEC. The Government’s reform package will not pass before the election. After decrying Labor’s inadequacy in handling this portfolio, the ability of the Government to achieve literally nothing is almost impressive.

We’ve got a little while before the election, double-dissolution or not, and it’s possible we may see some wider election promises in this area. It seems more likely that they’ll just continue to the claim the Jobs for Families Package is the magical fixer of all things.

Three years of inaction in ECEC is ridiculous and pathetic. Let’s hope the next three see positive moves forward.

 

Government announce inquiry into evidence base for early childhood and school

More than two years since its large-scale look into the structure and implementation of early childhood education and care funding, the Productivity Commission will be dipping its toe back into the sector. Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced on Friday that:

Starting today, the inquiry will examine the current information available in early childhood education and schooling and make recommendations about how to improve the evidence on which future government action is based.

The announcement was somewhat out of left field, and beyond the usual statements around the importance of data and research it’s unclear exactly why this inquiry has been commissioned.

The focus on ECEC is welcome though, and somewhat at odds with a Government that has consistently rolled back language to more old-school terms like childcare.

The Terms of Reference are up on the Productivity Commission website, and state that:

Improved access and greater ability to link and analyse national data could enhance the quality and scope of national education evidence that can be used to monitor educational outcomes and inform policy development and evaluation.

The scope of the Inquiry seems to be focused on how data can be better collected and then shared between Government agencies. Data collection in ECEC is fairly patchy, and not really focused on learning outcomes. It will be interesting to see what the Commission recommends in this area.

The inquiry is due to report back by December – after the next election. Consultation processes are yet to be announced.

For want of some data, the battle was lost

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“My dataset is better than yours” was the most common refrain heard during today’s public hearings in the Jobs for Families Child Care Package.  I was fortunate enough to attend, and while there were no nails in the coffins of this reform package, it’s certainly not looking terribly well and probably is in need of some medical attention.

I tweeted at length about it earlier this morning, so just wanted to post a quick summary of the main highlights from my point of view.

1. The impact on Indigenous children is appalling

Listening to the testimony from the SNAICC representatives was truly hard, as they respectfully but forcefully outlined the likely impact of these reforms on Indigenous children.

It’s incredible that mere weeks after the Closing the Gap report revealed our failure to meet the early childhood attendance goal, we’re seriously considering implementing reforms that would make it more difficult for Indigenous children to access ECEC.

2. Who’s got the best data?

The Government has two reports in its crosshairs – an ANU report commissioned by ECA and a Deloitte report commissioned by SNAICC – that had the temerity to suggest the reforms might be bad for many children and their families.

The Government has pointed to the reports not using the best data available. Which is understandable, given that the Government has refused to release data on crucial parts of this reform. It is madness that we are considering passing legislation that we know so little about.

3. Bureaucrats bereft, basically

The hour spent in the company of no less than six bureaucrats from the Department of Education was particularly terrifying. Answers to questions took agonisingly long to produce, and seemed in many places to be a “best guess”. Consultation processes, described by the sector as ranging from woeful to comedic, were “extensive”.

4. Want ECEC? Get a job

We at least gained crystal-clear clarity around how the Government views early childhood education. Senator McKenzie, Committee Chair, at one point left the beaten track entirely for some bizarre point about mothers going to yoga classes while their children were in childcare – on the public dollar, for shame!

For the Government, funding ECEC is viewed as welfare funds. Not funding early learning, but funding welfare, and just like every other form of welfare funding they begrudge every single cent spent on it.

The beating heart of this package (the JOBS FOR FAMILIES package, the clue is in the title) is punishing children for their employment “choices” of their families.

5. Gymnastic advocacy

Which leads to my last point. The dexterity required for people and organisations to suggest that this is a “good” package that can be made better with some minor amendments is now incredible, verging on the impossible. The litany of issues with this rushed, under-explained and data-poor legislation were recounted endlessly today. Every major part of the reform package has serious structural issues. The Activity Test. Closure of BBF services. The hourly benchmark fee. The six-hour blocks of funding. The lack of transparency over eligibility for the Child Care Subsidy.

At a certain point, when every part of the car is broken, you get rid of it and save for a new one. It’s time to throw this package out and start again.

Indigenous children’s access to ECE slashed by Government reform package

New report reveals impact of Government’s reform package on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services

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A report from Deloitte Access Economics for SNAICC released today revealed the concerning impact of the Federal Government’s “Jobs for Families” package for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families.

From ABC News Online:

The Deloitte research shows 40 per cent of families using the BBF services would receive fewer hours of subsidised care.

It also shows 54 per cent of families using BBF services would have higher out-of-pocket costs and the biggest impact would be felt by families earning less than $65,000.

Two-thirds of service providers would also receive less government funding.

Hilariously, the Federal Government has claimed the report is inaccurate and fails to take into account other elements of their reform package – despite the fact that the Government has consistently failed to reveal huge amounts of actual information the proposed reforms, both through the Regulatory Impact Statement process and in the proposed legislation currently before the Senate.

The Child Care Subsidy is only vaguely described, how it can be applied for and received is basically unknown, and how children and their families’ situations will be monitored on an ongoing basis is not described.

The economic benefits of the Jobs for Families package are dubious at best. The impact on children and families at-risk and experiencing vulnerability is crystal clear. The argument that this package is “OK with a few amendments” is becoming increasingly difficult to swallow.

Closing the gap target unachievable if current reforms go through

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Earlier this week, the Federal Government launched the annual Closing the Gap report. As seems to now be the story every year, there are a few things to celebrate (such as the decline in infant mortality) but much more that frustrates.

In early childhood education (ECE), targets have not been met. A new target of 95% of Indigenous children enrolled in ECE in 2025 has been set. With collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities, and sensible policies from Governments, this target could be met well before a decade passes.

With the current reform package before the Senate, there is no chance of this target being achieved. Which explains why they’ve put it off for a decade.

From Calla Wahlquist in the Guardian:

On Wednesday the 2016 Closing the Gap report set out the new goal of getting 95% of all Indigenous four-year-olds, not just those in remote communities, enrolled in preschool by 2025.

But the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) says the user-pays funding model proposed under the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2015 would threaten the viability of Aboriginal-run child and family service centres, halve the number of subsidised childcare hours available to low-income families that don’t meet a new “activity test” requirement, and further disadvantage Aboriginal children.

SNAICC deputy chief executive officer, Emma Sydenham, said the decision to scrap the Budget Based Fund, a top-up for those services that couldn’t cover their costs with fees or individual child subsidies, 80% of which were Indigenous, may force centres to close.

“Their focus is only on the needs of particularly vulnerable children and families in their communities,” Sydenham told Guardian Australia. “Their focus is not on how to meet the bureaucratic needs of these policies.”

There is a particularly kind of madness or cruelty (or both) in speaking the easy words of healing, consultation and Closing the Gap while putting forward policies that will make those things impossible.

This isn’t just about closing an inequitable gap in outcomes become Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It’s actually about improving lives and opportunities.

If the Government believes that slashing access to one of the most proven ways of addressing inequity – early childhood education – is the best way to meet this target, I dread to think what they have planned to address all the others.

A numbers game

Many have come out strongly against the Federal Government’s proposed reforms to early childhood education and care, primarily due to significant concerns on how the proposed Activity Test will affect the right of children to access early education.

It’s been a tricky fight for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones was the complete lack of data and numbers around the number of children and families likely to be affected.

We’re getting somewhere now, after Education Department deputy secretary Jackie Wilson appeared before Senate Estimates on Wednesday night.

Judith Ireland from Fairfax covered the numbers revealed in that appearance:

About 45,000 families will be worse off under the Coalition’s childcare reforms because they pay childcare fees that are higher than the upper limits of the government’s new subsidy rate.

A Senate committee also heard on Wednesday night that a further 37,000 families would be worse off because they did not work enough hours according to the new “activity test”.

This breakdown comes after the government published modelling late last month that showed overall, about 184,000 families would lose support in the new childcare package that starts in July 2017, while more than 815,000 will be better off.

Not insignificant numbers. It’s becoming indefensible for anyone with the interests of children of their families to advocate for this package – even with amendments – to be passed.

Even with the information revealed in Estimates, huge question marks still remain over the nature of the Government’s much-spruiked by un-detailed new safety net.

Hopefully we’ll learn more over the next few weeks.

Australian early childhood education is under threat – and we may not even know it

“And so people in the sector need to recognise and, if need be, adjust their business models to support those families who are looking to provide for their children for six hours a day or four hours a day over three days.”

– Senator Simon Birmingham

Advocacy gets tricky in the details. Fighting the good fight for ideals and foundational rights is not easy, but it’s clear. Calling out and ending the scourge of domestic violence. Calling for the release of children from immigration detention. Calling for a fair, equitable and funded early education and care sector.

There are clear, consistent and compelling cases that can – and are – being made on these important causes. But there comes a time when you need to move beyond the headline, get people round a table and hammer out a plan.

Tackling domestic violence will take generations of work in law, government, our schools and our homes. It will require challenging the very forces of society that encourage men to desire and exercise control over women.

Ending Australia’s offshore detention program, and freeing children from their abject existences within it, seems less and less likely as global events and our own inward focus hardens our attitudes. Even changing the Government will not end this.

As for early education – talk about getting lost in the details.

I’ve devoted a fair chunk of my professional career in this sector to understanding, exploring and arguing with people on Twitter about the ins and outs of Australian early childhood policy. There are any number of people more intelligent, articulate and credible in this space – but I’m not exactly a newbie here either. But, confession time, I find the system inordinately complex, challenging and migraine-inducing. On a good day.

Australia’s legislative, regulatory and political framework for Birth-5 education is a labyrinthine mess of funding streams, Federal/State & Territory overlaps, a system deliberately designed to foster profit-based competition, local government planning issues and an undervalued and underpaid workforce. They’re just the problems I could think of while writing this paragraph.

The Productivity Commission Inquiry was designed – at least in part – to identify, and provide solutions for, these endless entanglements. Its success in this area is minimal at best, and given that the current Government has had wildly varied responses to its final report depending on A) who was the current Minister at the team (just a reminder, we’re up to 3 now since the last election) and B) which Department has responsibility for the sector (2 so far, 3 if you count going back and forth from Education). It’s telling that the new Minister, Simon Birmingham, has barely referred to the Commission at all since his elevation to the role of Education Minister.

Advocating for a fair and equitable early education system is easy – right up until the point you have to get into the details. And it’s in the details that something very concerning is happening – and I’m not convinced the sector is ready for it.

Senator Birmingham has recently floated the idea that ECEC services should charge by the hour. An innocuous suggestion by itself – most families don’t use a service for its entire hours of operation each day. But, taken alongside a number of other statements and policy directions of the last 6-12 months, it’s now clear that Australia’s early education system is facing an existential threat.

Generalising massively here (which we have to because, again, the details make my head hurt), we can see the Birth-5 education advocacy push within Australia (and even internationally to greater or lesser extents) as moving along a continuum from formalised babysitting towards recognition as part of the formal education system. It’s a very simplified version, but we can generally agree that we’re moving towards a vision of being viewed in the same framework as primary, secondary and tertiary education – funded and available to all.

The National Quality Framework (NQF) was a significant milestone on this journey. It was agreed to by both Coalition and Labor State and Territory Governments, and despite some tough talk has been continued under the Coalition Federal Government. I’m a vigorous defender of the NQF – and its now clear that the Government know it’s here to stay. Which makes their current policy moves dangerous.

They’re not going to get rid of the NQF. They’re going to make it meaningless.

Proposed changes, currently before the Senate, will see the current work/study activity test – essentially how much you contribute to the economy before your children are deemed worth of accessing an ECEC services – will become tighter locking out already marginalised children and families.

The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care estimates at least half the indigenous families now using childcare would fail the work and study “activity test’’.

– Natasha Bita, The Australian

This erosion of access was the first major push-back. The current proposal to expect services to charge by the hour will push us back another step – except this one will be over a cliff.

The Government’s moves, taken as part of a wider push, will see the sector slide back along the continuum. Rather than heading towards integration with the education system, Birth-5 education will become a service for parents like a trip to Monkey Mania. In fact, given the administrative nightmare hourly charging within the CCMS system will cause the sector, we may as well hand over to private indoor playgrounds. At least their system is set up for it.

“After all, nobody expects a three or four year old to engage in 10 to 12 hours of centre-based learning per day. These children will be much better served via access to two or three shorter educational sessions per week.”

– Senator Simon Birmingham

I can understand families being seduced by this idea – particularly given that Australia’s Birth-5 system is the most expensive in the OECD. But Early Childhood Australia have legitimate analysis that hourly billing will actually end up being more expensive in the long run.

Regardless, I don’t actually believe that this argument is about the cost of ECEC. Despite a significant international shift in the last 5-10 years towards recognising and beginning to properly fund this area, the current Government just does not fundamentally accept the need for early education (with the exception of Preschool). Despite the clear evidence on return for investment, Australia does not appear ready to take this leap away from a workforce participation mindset towards a focus on society as a whole. The evidence is becoming overwhelming – just as with primary and secondary education, everyone benefits whether you personally have children in the system or not.

It’s worth discussing primary and secondary education within the context of this (now extremely long) look at advocacy and details. The Gonski campaign was a fantastic example of education-based advocacy because it was clear, and actually managed to overcome a lot of the problem of minute detail. The Australian community at large could accept the details of the problem – and solution – because the argument about the right to accessing school is done and dusted.

The reason Birth-5 advocacy doesn’t have a “Gonski”-style campaign is the right to access argument is still being waged. We’re still in the weeds of even getting the community to accept this needs to be funded at all, let alone how.

The Government’s current approach reflects this – and therefore the “solutions” being proposed are a staggering case of missing the point entirely.

Senator Birmingham is not wrong to point out that families may be paying a lot for hours they are not using. But this isn’t the point – the point is they’re paying a lot for ECEC full stop. Forcing services to upend their entire approach misses the point that the system needs to be structured and funded to support the attendance of all children, particularly those experiencing vulnerability.

Senator Birmingham is not necessarily wrong to raise the issue of children attending 10-12 hours of formal learning a day. However, this firstly exposes a rather simplistic and inaccurate view of what is happening in ECEC services, and secondly his proposed solution is again entirely the wrong approach. If this is his concern, regulate services to provide shorter permanent hours of operation. Instead of opening to floodgates to Paid Parking Meter Childcare, let’s do 8.30 – 3.30. Heaven forbid the business community should have to be flexible to meet the education needs of children.

The move towards a fair and equitable Birth-5 education system is under threat, and the details are the weapons. Small but significant policy changes that undermine the gains of the last decade. I’m worried that the sector isn’t ready for this, and that private operators in the space may actually seize on the proposed system.

We need to be aware, and we need to force ourselves to keep up with the details. We may end up buried under them.