This is what advocacy looks like

rchvictoria

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.

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What is our collective responsibility for children?

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 childrenspying 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.

12-month funding extension doesn’t tell us anything about the Government’s position on early education

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.

They have certainly not been shy about coming forward with their ideological positions on a number of other issues such as free speech, the environment and education to name just a few.

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.

2014: The Year of Early Childhood Education and Care

2014 is going to be a huge year for the early childhood education and care sector.

The Productivity Commission has been tasked by the new Federal Government with running an inquiry into the “childcare and early learning” system. There has been no such look into the mechanics of the sector since the 1990s.

Fair Work Australia will be considering a wage equity case for Australia’s early childhood education and care workforce.

ACECQA will be undertaking a full review of the implementation of the National Quality Framework.

Throughout December, I will be launching a new advocacy initiative – Children’s Agenda.

For today, can I ask three things of you.

Follow @ChildrenAgenda on Twitter. “Like” Children’s Agenda on Facebook. Share these both with your friends and colleagues.

2014 will decide the future of early childhood education in this country. The decisions made in this year will impact Australian children, families and educators for decades.

Now is the time to step up, raise your voice, and have your say.

ACECQA Conference 2013

Today is the first day of the ACECQA 2013 Conference. For those of you on Twitter, I’d recommend following along using the hashtag #nqfcon2013.

If you’re an educator, teacher or otherwise involved in children’s education, I would strongly recommend signing up to Twitter and getting involved. It’s a great way to “meet” fellow professionals and contribute to the broad discussions around children’s learning and wellbeing.

If you do, don’t forget to say hello to me: @liammcnicholas.