This is the text of my keynote address at the Little People, Big Dreams Conference organised by Child Australia. It was delivered at the Darwin Convention Centre on Saturday 13 October 2018.
This has been tough to write, and has taken me many months of thinking to put down. I know that the words I write here will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or even seen as some sort of grandstanding or attention-seeking.
I can’t help any of that, but I need to quickly say these things.
Over the last couple of years I have turned down opportunities to speak or write about challenges for men working in early childhood.
I want to explain why, and why I will continue to do so.
45 children still remain in some form of detention on Nauru and on mainland Australia. What we have done to these children will haunt them for the remainder of their lives.
I am not one of those courageous few who devote their every day to changing those facts. People in organisations like Save the Children, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and others.
I work in early childhood, and I write. I’m incredibly privileged and fortunate in every area of my life. I have no idea if my writing can help, but I would like to make a small gesture – even if a gesture is all it will be.
It seems likely that within the next few weeks, the Government’s long-promised and much-analysed early childhood education and care reforms – under the telling title the “Jobs for Families” Package” – will finally come to a vote in the Parliament.
I’ve been writing and speaking about this Package for more than a year now. I am as firmly opposed to it now as I was then, if not more so. As we’re approaching a time where it may either pass and become law, or fail and surely be a wake up call to a Government that has got this policy area so wrong, I thought it might be helpful to clearly and simply articulate my position on this package.
Please forgive this quick bit of self-publicity.
Today myself and two of my favourite people in the early childhood sphere launched the first episode of the Early Education Show.
We’re excited and enjoying this little experiment in a new medium for the important issues affecting young children and early learning to be discussed, debated and analysed.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, I’d really appreciate you giving it a go.
I’ve banged on about advocacy on this blog for years now. It’s crucial if we’re going to make any changes to the early childhood education (ECE) system for the benefit of children and their families.
We’re a fragmented and disjointed sector. We don’t have a clear and simple advocacy campaign that we’re all rallying around. There are competing priorities, different perspectives, and those who are in this sector not for the principles of children’s rights but to make a lot of money.
Which is why the actions this week of Australia’s largest not-for-profit early childhood education organisations, Goodstart Early Learning, are so disappointing.
Some context. The Senate is currently considering the Federal Government’s imaginatively-titled “Jobs for Families” package which will, among other things, slash access to ECE for the children that most need it. The entire thrust of the package is to position the sector as entirely about workforce participation for the parents of a child. It is a regressive and damaging package that should be fought.
Last week submissions closed to a Senate Committee inquiry into the package, and I was heartened to see some excellent submissions from sector leaders. I very much recommend checking out the submissions of Community Child-Care Co-operative, SDN Children’s Services, UNSW’s Social Policy Research Centre and Northside Community Service (which, to be fair, is my employer!).
All of these submissions clearly and fearlessly articulate the very real and serious concerns inherent in the Government’s proposed reforms. The sector is rightly challenging them.
So I was… let’s be diplomatic and use the word “surprised” – to see the headline on this press release from Goodstart Early Learning:
I’m going to have to skate right by the offensive use of the word childcare there, and throughout the release, as there are far too many other issues to address.
The press release refers to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) commissioned by Goodstart to analyse the Government’s proposed ECE reforms to determine the likely benefit to the economy and workforce productivity.
I’m going to have to break the myriad problems with the report, Goodstart’s media release, the resultant media, and what it says about who should be the Australian ECE leader in advocacy into several parts. Stick with me.
The PwC report -why?
Let’s start with a fundamental question – why did Goodstart commission this report at all? Seriously – I have no idea why. The report states:
Goodstart Early Learning commissioned PwC in September 2015 to model the economic impacts of the proposed CCS (Child Care Subsidy).
Goodstart, according to their site, provide ECEC to over 70,000 children around Australia. To their credit, they are a not-for-profit consortium that took over from the collapse of ABC Learning. But why are they in the business of modelling economic impacts of proposed packages? Goodstart’s role, the same as every other ECEC provider, is to support the learning and wellbeing of children. I am not an Early Childhood Teacher to support Australia’s workforce participation KPIs. I’ll be blunt – I don’t care.
The only aspects of the Government’s reforms that should interest Goodstart are how they will affect children, or the educators who work with them. I’d love for an ECEC organisation to ask a large, reputable company like PwC to model how many children are likely to miss out on ECEC as a result of these reforms and their parents’ deemed “contribution” to the economy – and how many of them will be children at risk.
Goodstart employs over 13,000 educators. Have they also paid for modelling to see how many will have to be shifted to part-time or casual work if the Government’s proposed six-hour block funding goes ahead?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services under the current Budget Based Funding model will be forced to transition to the “mainstream” funding model. According to SNAICC, most won’t be able to do so. Where is the report on how many Indigenous children will now not be able to access ECEC?
The report itself is useless
Having read the report – which was not easy given that it is not publicised on Goodstart’s website at all, for no reason that I can see – it’s also clear that it’s out-of-date and does not look at parts of the reform package that will have the most impact on children.
This is from the last page of the report:
The activity test and subsidy cap aspects of the Child Care Subsidy have not been considered in this analysis. Adjustments to the proposed Child Care Subsidy that were announced in late 2015, including a lower subsidy level at higher income thresholds, were also not included in this analysis.
I actually can’t come up with a diplomatic way to say this. This is insanity. The activity test is a cornerstone of the Government’s reforms, and will have the most significant impact on children, particularly those most at-risk. For it not to be included in the analysis is incredible. Was PwC specifically asked to not include it? That would be very worrying.
The actual projections on enhanced workforce participation seem to be a combination of vague guesses and a wildly optimistic interpretation of the outcome of the planned reforms.
In a broad sense, the report does not take into account any of the changes made to the package in November 2015. So basically, the report was out-dated well before it was released.
How the report was used
The report was a gift to the Government.
The Government is fighting hard to get their reforms through, despite opposition from some players in the sector and peak welfare advocacy groups. This report, commissioned by Australia’s biggest player in ECEC, is a complete win for them. Indeed, it was referred to several times in Parliament last week, including by the Prime Minister:
So we welcome today’s independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It projects the equivalent of 20,000 full-time workers will join the workforce as a result of the government’s new childcare subsidy. I quote the Goodstart Early Learning CEO, Julia Davison, who commissioned the report. She said:
“The Jobs for Families childcare package will deliver a significant economic gain for our nation by making returning to work more attractive for parents.”
The report also did the rounds in the media, and it’s headline figures of adding “the equivalent of nearly 20,000 full time workers to the labour force and $3.1 billion to national GDP by 2020” was pretty much taken at face value.
Goodstart’s media release on the issue is shocking in its complete focus on the economic and workforce implications of this report, and complete disregard for how the reforms they’ve asked to be analysed will directly and adversely affect children – who are, apparently, central to everything Goodstart does.
What does this mean for advocacy?
Call me alarmist (you won’t be the first), but this is getting into dangerous territory. The commissioning of the report, and subsequent media release, looks like nothing more than a Government media strategy. It’s the Government’s job to sell the economic implications of this package. Good luck to them. For Goodstart to get into this on their behalf is bad for the sector, and – frankly – embarrassing for Goodstart.
Read the media release again. Pretend the Goodstart branding isn’t on there. After reading it, would you even know that the organisation that put this release out worked in ECEC?
I expect more from Goodstart, as Australia’s largest NFP ECEC organisation. They expect more of themselves – as they themselves state.
The real kicker for me is this paragraph, the only time children even get a mention.
Improving access to affordable quality childcare supports increased workforce participation not just in the short term, but in the long term because more children starting school ready to learn will mean more Australians entering the workforce ready to work.
So apparently the endgame here is more happily productive workforce participation units. Vale, the wonder of childhood. Time to get ready to work.
This has been a long and rambling piece, but it’s important. The Government’s proposed reform package are disastrous for children and their families. I am not alone in thinking that. For one of the biggest players to become Government spokespeople on this issue is an incredible abdication of responsibility.
I can only guess at Goodstart’s motives here. Genuine interest in the economic implications? If so, that’s ridiculous. A desire to be “on good terms” with the Turnbull government, to be “inside the tent” as it were?
The Government has spokespeople. It has economic modelling. You know what Australian ECEC desperately needs but doesn’t have? More powerful, irrefutable voices of advocacy which will stand up to poor policy on behalf of children.
It seems like over the last week, Goodstart has vacated the field. What a shame.
“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.
I’ve written before about the failings of advocacy in Australia’s early childhood education sector. We’re too fragmented, our voices aren’t loud enough, and our actions don’t back our rhetoric.
With that context in mind, it has been nothing short of incredible to watch the actions of the doctors, nurses and support staff of Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) over the past few days. Their visible, clear and brave advocacy on an issue so important as the health and wellbeing of vulnerable children is inspirational.
For anyone not following the news, the staff at RCH have publicly stated that children from immigration detention facilities being treated in the hospital will not be returned to those facilities. This a powerful act of advocacy from a traditionally conservative group – and could even be in breach of the Government’s insidious “Border Force Act”, which in effect criminalises health workers speaking out about the treatment of people in immigration detention.
“We see a whole range of physical, mental, emotional and social disturbances that are really severe and we have no hope of improving these things when we have to discharge our patients back into detention,” one paediatrician told News Corp.
The outlet reported that it understood the issue was sparked by a month-long standoff between doctors and authorities over the release of a child with a range of health issues this year.
Staff have also been outraged at immigration guards placed at the entrances of some patients’ rooms for 24 hours a day.
This is a courageous stand, and should be supported. This is an opportunity for the early childhood sector to add its own voice to this issue.
I’m proud to be an employee of an organisation that today released a public statement of support for the RCH staff, and called for an end to children in detention. I’d be very grateful if you would read and share that statement.
I wonder how many other organisations that work with young children will follow suit. If you’re in a position to, ask your organisation to do so. Please send any links to me, I’d love to share them out.
Children’s Week launches in two weeks time. The theme is “Children’s Rights are Human Rights”. Wouldn’t it be amazing if instead the usual “dress-up days” and “teddy bears picnics”, we saw leading early childhood organisations stand together and show their support.
As Early Childhood educators and teachers, what is our collective responsibility for children? Australian children? Children born overseas? What about children locked in Australian-run immigration detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island?
The Guardian reports today that Transfield, the company that has overseen shocking abuses of human rights in those facilities, is the Government’s “preferred tenderer” to oversee operations on Nauru and Manus for another five years.
It’s worth considering exactly what Transfield’s record has been, thanks to Ben Doherty in the Guardian:
Thirty-three asylum seekers on Nauru have alleged rape or sexual assault and a further five say they have been asked for sexual favours in return for contraband. Some of those allegations have been made against Transfield staff.
Transfield subcontractors, in particular Wilson Security, have been accused of a series of abuses, including handcuffing children, spying on a senator when she visited the island on an official trip, assaulting asylum seekers who were handcuffed, and running a secretive solitary confinement facility on Manus.
The idea of Transfield continuing in its role in these facilities is monstrous. But for the children in these camps, it could be even worse.
Guardian Australia understands the announcement from the government means that Save the Children, which was providing welfare services for children and families on Nauru, will no longer operate on the island. That role will be taken over by Transfield.
There is plenty of evidence that Australia’s immigration detention facilities are abusing children. The idea that the “welfare services” currently operated by Save the Children will be handled by Transfield is chilling. This would be a catastrophic outcome for children.
The Government has worked this year to strip away rights for those imprisoned in this facilities, including provisions that would make it illegal to report instances of child harm within them. Replacing Save the Children with Transfield would entrench the secrecy and lack of accountability of these practices.
Putting it mildly, those of us who work in the ECEC sector are not the first to put their hands up when it comes to political battles. We’re staring down the barrel of a terrible Government reform package (for the details of which I direct you to the incredible writer Lisa Bryant), and even this has barely caused a titter in the sector.
But our roles are directly tied to the ongoing wellbeing of children. We should be Australian children’s first line of defence. When atrocities such as those on Nauru and Manus are allowed to continue, we should be the first to stand and say “not on our watch”.
It can be difficult to know where to start – and what to do. But there’s a couple of small things you can do soon.
- Discuss this with your colleagues. You may be able to come up with some advocacy ideas from within your team.
- Pick up the pen (or keyboard) and write – the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s contact details are right here. You should also contact your local MP.
- Check out ChilOut – a fantastic advocacy organisation that seeks the removal of all children from immigration detention.
Sussan Ley is obviously familiar with the idea that you don’t come to a party empty-handed.
Before almost 2000 delegates at the opening day of Early Childhood Australia’s National Conference on Friday, the Assistant Minister for Education announced that the Federal Government would commit to a further 12 months of funding for the National Partnership Agreement on Preschool funding.
This Agreement provides funding to the States and Territories to top up their existing funded Preschool hours to 15 per week for every child. It was due to cease at the end of this year, and since its election in September last year the Government has steadfastly refused to confirm if the funding would be extended.
This failure to provide certainty has been regularly condemned by the sector, by early learning experts – and even the Productivity Commission has recommended in its draft report that the funding should be kept.
Minister Ley’s announcement has provoked mixed reactions. The extension of funding is undoubtedly welcome, but the caveat that it is only a 12-month extension once again places the sector in a state of uncertainty.
The decision provides further emphasis on the core problem facing the Government’s approach to childcare and early childhood education: It doesn’t have one.
Ever since their election, and in fact during most of their time in Opposition, the Abbott Government has been content to provide regular and scathing assessments of the Labor Government’s ineptitude and profligacy in this area.
“Fees rose 53% under Labor,” intones the Assistant Minister so regularly it is probably in her email signature block. “Operators are drowning in red tape” is another popular catchphrase.
Both those lines can be (and regularly have been) strongly rebutted – but one year after their election, there seems little point arguing to toss when we don’t even know what game we’re playing.
The early childhood sector and the community are no closer to understanding what the Government’s approach to such a critical policy area is now than they were one year ago. 52 weeks after they were handed the keys to Parliament House, it is surely not unreasonable that we might have an inkling of what the Government thinks needs to be done with early learning and childcare.
The go-to excuse has always been the Productivity Commission. Handballing the political hot potato to the Commission was a short-term measure to avoid scrutiny and making any actual decisions. Examining the issues and factors surrounding the sector is a worthwhile exercise, and the Commission’s draft report has already sparked debate in the community.
But the Government’s refusal to even point in the general direction of a policy position until they have had the chance to read the final report is now bordering on lunacy. Governments, and in particular this Government, are not unbiased implementers of recommendations from independent reviewers.
Governments are values-driven, and have a particular ideological bent. It is surely time, regardless of what the Commission recommends, that we have some idea of how the Government even views early learning.
This is a significant community issue, and plays into the lives of practically every Australian family. Regardless of whatever specific concerns people may have had about the policy settings of the previous Labor Government, they were at least clear that they stood for a growth in funding to early childhood education, a national benchmark of quality and support for children and families experiencing vulnerabilities to access early learning.
We have no such direction from the current Government, even in such general terms. In Opposition, Sussan Ley regularly lambasted the National Quality Framework as “the dead hand of government regulation”, while in Government has defended it from attacks by Senator David Leyonhjelm.
Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have grimly told Australians that the budget is tight and no extra money can be found for early education in the Budget, while allocating $5.5 billion to a Paid Parental Leave scheme that barely even has majority support within their own party.
The Government is under no obligation to outline specific early education policies until they are ready – but they have surely run out of time to keep their general thoughts on such policies hidden and unknown.
Which begs the question: why is the Government so silent on early education?
Two possibilities suggest themselves – either they have no idea what to do and how to do it; or the plans they do have are too shocking to share with the electorate.
It’s hard to know which is worse.