Four years on from the NQF, are educators more respected?

This week, the federal Department of Education is conducting a nationwide “Workforce Census” of early childhood education and care (ECEC) services. This census will provide important information on the qualifications, retention rates and other factors that provide a snapshot of the early childhood educator role in Australia.

This is a good opportunity to take a step back and look holistically at how early childhood educators are viewed and supported, both within the ECEC sector and in the community. The National Quality Framework (NQF) was introduced in 2012, and one of its key pillars was the acknowledgement that quality learning could be provided by qualified and valued educators.

Four years on, how close are we to realising that vision?

Continue reading “Four years on from the NQF, are educators more respected?”

High-profile advocacy is being successfully run internationally – but not in Australia

Big Steps Day crowd in Garema Place, Canberra

2014 is a huge year for early childhood education in Australia – so now seems like a good time to ask why Australian advocacy for early learning is not working.

The global profile of early childhood education has probably never been higher. Whether it’s universal access, workforce participation for women and the resultant economic benefits, or the proven link between high quality early learning and addressing structural disadvantage for children, the case to focus policy and budgets on young children is being made all over the world.

Just to pick a few examples, the United Kingdom is having an active political discussion on the merits of universal childcare, which will be one of the key issues of the upcoming 2015 General Election.

President Barrack Obama has also highlighted early childhood education as a priority in his second and final term of office, while former Secretary of State (and very possibly the next President of the US) Hillary Clinton is spearheading a huge advocacy push called Too Small to Fail.

Canadian advocates have been running a long-term, targeted and very savvy campaign targeting local councils and the national Government – The Plan for $10/Day Child Care.

Smart, focused and high-profile campaigns are being successfully run internationally. The same cannot be said for Australia.

This is not to say there are not excellent advocates and advocacy organisations that are operating in Australia – there certainly are.

But in terms of scale, scope and recognition to the general public? Nothing on the scale of any of the international examples.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, Australia faces many of the same political and social challenges as the countries listed above – sluggish economies, challenges to workforce participation and rising burden of cost of childcare to families.

We also know from Australian data that 1 in 4 children are starting formal schooling with a developmental delay.

The rising costs of ECEC, issues with availability and a new push for quality are regular items in the media. The conditions are perfect for a clear advocacy campaign to cut through.

But nothing has. There is no clarion call for universal access to early childhood services – individuals are calling for it, but only as individual voices lost in a swirl of op-eds and half-baked ideas about importing nanny-servants.

The Big Steps campaign has enjoyed publicity and even a significant victory – but its target is narrow (professional wages) and comes with the baggage of being a union campaign, fairly or unfairly.

A new player on the block is The Parenthood, a social-media-driven network of families advocating on a number of issues. It’s too soon to effectively judge this group, but it’s important to remember that at this stage The Parenthood (despite some media attention) have not yet demonstrated they have broken through to the wider community.

Their most recent campaign to quarantine preschool funding has only attracted just over 1300 signatures so far. Not insignificant, but not game-changing.

Hard as it may be to admit, the most consistently clear, targeted and successful advocacy on ECEC issues has come from Gwynn Bridge and the Australian Childcare Alliance.

They are the go-to group for the media, have a close relationship with the most senior decision-maker in our sector Assistant Minister Sussan Ley, and have effectively and in all likelihood irrevocably set a significant portion of the sector against quality reforms and the raising of standards for centres.

Like it or not, advocates for high-quality, accessible and child-focused ECEC need to learn from Ms. Bridge and her organisation, and they will need to do it quickly.

The sector has been beset by fragmentation and a lack of collaboration. Reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s turned early learning into a market-based free-for-all. Community organisations who should be natural partners on this issue instead compete for government tenders and grants.

The submissions to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into the sector revealed a frightening lack of consensus amongst early childhood organisations and stakeholders, and more broadly in the community demonstrated the lack of a single “vision” to reach for.

Instead of the community having a smart, simple campaign they could latch on to, we’re stuck with whatever ridiculous thought bubble the latest Think Tank has just thrown up.

The fundamental reason that we don’t have a banner to rally around is that no-one could agree what colour it would be, let alone what would be written on it.

Internationally, Australia is viewed as fairly progressive – we did after all briefly elect an atheist, unmarried woman as our leader.

But everything I know about Australia tells a different story – a country with a deep, long and embedded relationship with conservatism.

The same country – and the same political party – that elected Julia Gillard mercilessly and callously cut her down, with more than a whiff of relaxed sighs when two successive white men in suits (and idiotic grins) took her place.

The main progressive party in this country re-opened Manus Island and signed the PNG re-settlement deal. It has supported ever-encroaching freedom for intelligence agencies to collect information on us.

In the last Parliament, only 48 MPs out of 150 voted for marriage equality. 26 of the “No” votes came from the ALP. To contrast, conservative governments in New Zealand and the United Kingdom have implemented laws allowing for gay marriage.

The case for high-quality, accessible and affordable childcare strikes on a deeply conservative nerve as I have written before. Conservative values say the kids stay at home with Mum. Universal childcare has the potential to undermine the much-hyped about “family unit”, with Mum, Dad and the little kiddies.

Despite a laid-back, “all good” image we project abroad, Australia has demonstrated time and time again that we are conservative nation that occasionally (and reluctantly) dabbles with progressive notions. Early childhood advocates will need to be strategic and persistent to defeat that.

But there is a slight silver lining – when Australia does go progressive, it goes hard. Medicare is a good example. Free, universal healthcare is not going anywhere, no matter how conservative the Government of the day may be.

Progressive wins, when they are completely won, are fully embedded. Universal early childhood education could be the next big win.

I’ve identified the problems – now what are the solutions?

Large early childhood organisations need to come together across the country for large-scale and targeted political advocacy.

Getting those organisations to agree on every point will never happen – so it needs to be around something simple. For me, the focal point has to be the continuation of the NQF in its current form.

Removing the points of contention and coming together around this issue is not impossible, but could have significant impact. A coalition of providers in Australia could be a powerful political force – now we just have to see if they realise it.

Will the ghost of the EYQF continue to haunt the Government?

eyqflabor

The Coalition Government has found much to fault the previous Labor Government for, not least in its handling of early childhood education and care.

They’ve managed a tepid and limp hand clap for the creation and implementation of the National Quality Framework, which provides a national minimum standard for this work for the very first time.

Services are however, apparently “drowning in red tape” and quaking in fear from the “dead hand of government regulation”. The way the Coalition tells it, the last six years in ECEC have basically been a horror movie that the public has at last been able to walk out on.

Labor, those socialist fiends, have apparently just been throwing money at problems plaguing the sector – which presumably means that services are drowning in both red tape and money. A weird way to go.

But it appears that nothing has made the now grown-up and serious Government more disappointed than the handling of the Early Years Quality Fund.

“It was unfair,” they cried. “It was inequitable!” they wailed. “It was a lot of money we’d rather not spend on educators!” they murmured quietly on their way back to their offices.

Now, to be fair, it was unfair and it was inequitable. Please see previous blog rants for anything more on that.

But it placed the Government in the tricky position of trying to tight-walk between their burning desire to erase the last six years of history from the books, and the somewhat uncomfortable image of ripping away a small pay increase from people who work with young children.

To address this fairness and inequity, the Government has instead redirected the $300 million fund to “professional development” to the entire sector.

Well, $300 million minus the amount that had already been contracted out to organisations who, when politely asked by politicians on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (plus entitlements and apparently any large bookshelves they feel they might need) to return the money they were going to give to some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia, shocking said “No”.

According to the Department of Education, money should be rolling out to spend on professional development pretty soon. There is not a lot of information available on requirements, processes or obligations on services concerning the money.

But a more basic question has possibly not been asked – can the Government even do what they are proposing to do?

Let’s have a look at what we know.

The EYQF was legislated – it passed the House of Representatives and the Senate and became law. This means the money allocated for it can only be used for the prescribed, legislated purpose – i.e. professional wages.

From an interview on ABC’s 730 program in December:

SUSSAN LEY: …the special account Labor created only targeted long-day-care centres and only targeted a small proportion of those.

LEIGH SALES: But you’re in charge now. You’ve got the $300 million?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, we are stuck with their legislation and I don’t propose to send the legislation back to the Parliament.

The context of the conversation was that Leigh Sales had suggested to Sussan Ley if the issue was one of equity, why not just redistribute the funding to the entire sector. In this section, Sussan Ley has suggested that this was not possible due to the nature of the legislation.

The actual legislation itself – The Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013 – is available here and is pretty clear. It’s a riveting document with an almost spectacular lack of detail, but the key point is Section 7:

Purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account:

 

The purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account is to provide funding to approved centre based long day care services, to be used exclusively for paying remuneration, and other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.

Based on the evidence, it would appear to be legislatively impossible for the Assistant Minister to do as she is proposing, which is to redirect the funding legislated in this Bill.

Yet that appears to be exactly what is occurring, with apparently no objection from either the Opposition or United Voice.

The Bill does state that funds can be used for professional wages and “for other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.” This, however, hardly directly equates to professional development.

I have contacted the Assistant Minister with these questions and, based on my previous communications with her office, will receive a reply from her Department in 2-3 months.

But it perhaps needs to be asked of the other political players in ECEC why this rather substantial question on whether the Government can do what they are proposing to do has not been asked in Parliament.

Editors Note: Grateful thanks are given to Karl Hessian and Lisa Bryant for their research and assistance in this post. You can (and should) follow them both on Twitter by clicking on their names.

Government clarifies position on wages for early childhood educators

Big Steps Day crowd in Garema Place, Canberra

Now that submissions to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Child Care and Early Learning have closed, attention has turned to another big event in early childhood education and care in 2014.

Fair Work Australia will be making a ruling on the wages of educators around the middle of the year. One of the things that will decide the final ruling will be whether the wages of educators are chronically low due to the feminisation of the sector – essentially they are lowly paid as the role has been viewed primarily as women’s work, traditionally done for free.

The previous ALP Government referred the case to Fair Work Australia as part of its response to the Big Steps campaign. They also committed funds to a Pay Equity Unit within FWA to assist with the application.

Throughout last year, and the 2013 election, the Coalition supported the referral of the wages issue to Fair Work Australia. Sussan Ley, the Assistant Minister for Education, said in December “Let’s let the Fair Work Commission do its work and come up with a sustainable increase for everybody.”.

At the time, this was a simple political deflection to avoid being perceived as attacking educators.

Now that the FWA decision is in the not-too-distant future, it appears that the Government may be changing its approach somewhat.

The Australian has reported on a Federal Government submission to FWA, where they have warned that granting wage increases to the sector could have negative flow-on effects to other industries.

From The Australian:

In a submission to the commission lodged late yesterday, the government said the tribunal’s task was to redress any gender-based differences in pay, not “undertake an exercise in comparative wage justice”.

The Government seems to be trying to make the point that FWA is not empowered to compare wages between different sectors or industries, but only to resolve specific gender issues within a specific sector.

This is deliberate attempt to refocus the case in a direction far more likely to lead to a negative verdict.

The evidence is clear and irrefutable that early childhood educators are underpaid primarily due to the feminisation of the sector. On current figures, only 3% of the sector is male.

FWA’s decision that wages were unfairly low for reasons of gender in the social and community sector case was in the context of a sector that employs around 15-20% of men.

On the strength of that alone, the case seems relatively open and shut.

What the Government appears to be trying to do is direct FWA to not compare between the ECEC sector and more diversely-represented sectors (or even male-dominated sectors), as there can only be one conclusion drawn from those comparisons.

Sections of the sector have reacted negatively to the Government’s position. Kate Ellis, the Shadow Minister for Early Childhood, Child Care and Youth, said that “The Abbott Government said to educators time and time again, if you want a pay rise, take it to the Fair Work Commission. But educators never expected their own government would speak out against them getting the wage they deserve. This is nothing but a cruel deception and a tricky political game and the cost is borne on low paid workers.”

It is important to remember, however, that FWA is an entirely independent body and is not directed by the Government.

The Government undoubtedly would prefer that in the current political climate of a “budget emergency”, they are not left footing the bill for a wage increase that could be anywhere up to $2 billion.

The Government are trying to encourage FWA to shift the goalposts into a position more favourable to them – but that is no guarantee that it will happen.

A clear case can be made that a culture of undervaluing the work of women in our society has had the long-term impact of keeping the wages of professional educators and teachers in the ECEC sector artificially low.

All that remains is for that case to be forcefully made, and for FWA to hand down its decision.

EYQF ends, as it was always going to, in complete farce

Ending months of speculation, Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley today announced that the Government would seek to redirect $300 million committed to the Early Years Quality Fund into “professional development” for the entire sector.

“…this new programme will specifically target professional development opportunities that will provide improved access to childcare and early learning career paths for educators.

“This will in turn help retain staff in the sector and meet the improved education standards required under the National Quality Framework.

“This is shaping up to be the biggest public investment in professional development in the childcare sector’s history. I encourage all operators to recognise this once in a generation opportunity to improve the skills of some of our lowest paid workers.”

An ignoble end to an inequitable and hastily cobbled-together election year throw-of-the-dice.

I have advocated against this fund since it was first publicly announced in April. At the time, I stated:

I believe that this funding package has the potential to disastrously undermine the Early Childhood Education sector and the campaign for professional wages.

So here we find ourselves. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to be proved right.

An independent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers has slammed the Fund. This will undoubtedly be read by supporters of the fund as unfair and political.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have had an ongoing commitment to examining and reporting on the early childhood education and care sector, and have been overwhelmingly progressive. They even advocated to Government a “Gonski-style” funding model of ECEC, where children are funded at a base level and loadings are applied for children experiencing vulnerabilities.

Hardly a Conservative mouthpiece.

The report accuses the Government and United Voice of using the Fund as a thinly-veiled means to drive up union membership. Hardly a huge scandal that a Union would seek to increase its membership, but the use of taxpayer funds to do so is obviously of concern.

From my point of view, I believe that the Union have in the majority of cases acted in the best interests of some of the lowest-paid people in this country.

It is however, absolutely true that in some cases the “marketing” of the EYQF was handled badly by United Voice. PwC claim to have evidence of union delegates harassing services to become members, or they would not receive money from the Fund.

I will not give specific details, but I can confirm from my own experience that in some cases that absolutely did happen.

(Not, I hasten to add, in the ACT where the United Voice branch has always worked collaboratively and effectively with the ECEC workforce).

Some in the sector have raised the point that surely it’s good if more educators join the Union? Absolutely. But holding a bucket of money over their heads and essentially telling them “join us or you don’t get it” is immoral and disgusting behaviour.

The structural issues with the sector mean that Union membership is not going to follow the same trajectory as teachers, or nurses. The overwhelming influence of market forces, and a much lower level of community respect means that there is not going to be some huge upsurge in membership.

Particularly when a Labor Government announces a fund that will only to go to less than half of the sector, and is clearly aimed at keeping private operators out.

Not only that, but then splitting the fund into two buckets (at the very last minute) was an absolutely outrageous and incomprehensible decision. Making an already inequitable policy even more inequitable? That takes a level of political incompetence I can barely conceive of.

And this is the fundamental problem with the entire Fund, and why it was always going to end in this farce. No matter what the intention, no matter what the strategy, no matter what the “long-term plan”, funding only 40% of the sector was a despicable and grossly unfair policy decision.

At the centre of all these policy discussions are lowly-paid educators, the majority of whom will now be rightly furious. They have spend the last 7 months being systematically treated like fools, by Labor and Liberal politicians.

From my point of view (for what it’s worth), all of the contracts, conditional or otherwise, should have been honoured by Tony Abbott. That was the election commitment.

The Government will spend the money anyway, on some nebulous “professional development” fund. No further details, of course. I particularly like the notion that the Government would quite like those will be getting money through EYQF contracts to pay it back, pretty please. That should go extremely well.

I actually completely agree with taking the entire $300 million and spending it on the entire sector. It’s what should have been done in the first place.

But the new Government has demonstrated that, just as with the previous Government, they are prepared to play low politics with ECEC.

The focus now has to shift to the Productivity Commission Inquiry, and the Wage Equity Case.

Let the EYQF stand as a reminder to advocates for the sector to be careful what you wish for – and to remember that forgoing our principles of equity because a small bucket of money appears will always end as the Fund has ended today. In embarrassing farce.

Navigating partisans, politicians and dimwits: Advocacy, Australian-style!

It was a huge honour to be invited to speak at Community Child Care Co-operative’s 35th Birthday event, alongside such incredible early childhood “rockstars” as Alma Fleet, Eva Cox, Lisa Bryant, Anthony Semann and more. For those on Twitter, check out the hashtag #CCCCis35 to check out some of the incredible moments from the day.

The post below is my prepared presentation at the event – there were some minor changes on the day which reflected what I had heard and been inspired by in the previous presentations.

I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather today, the Cadigal People of the Eora Nation. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I call home and work from, the Ngunnawal People.

I’d like to wish Community Child Care Co-operative a very Happy 35th Birthday! It is a great honour to be invited by them to speak with you today. As CCCC has been such a positive and powerful force for advocacy in NSW and around Australia, to be invited to speak on that topic is somewhat nerve-wracking!

It is also a huge privilege to be speaking alongside such incredible educators, activists and leaders in the sector. I’ve worked with some of you professionally in the past, some of you I’ve followed through your writing, and some of you I’ve had long arguments with on Twitter.

It was particularly exciting to meet the wonderful Lisa Bryant (@lisajbryant) in person today, who has been a regular social media sparring partner! The early childhood community on social media is growing each day, which can only be a fantastic development.

The ability of social networking and online forums, such as Early Childhood Australia’s NQS Forum, are invaluable to the ongoing discussions, disagreements and arguments that will be shaping the future of our sector.

The late Christopher Hitchens once said that “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.”

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those in this room that I have spent valuable time “discussing” the finer points of early childhood policy with.

My talk today is focused on policy and politics – hopefully it will be a little more interesting than that sounds!

I set up my blog to explore the nexus between children, policy and politics – obviously particularly focused on the early childhood education and care sector.

As a sector, I don’t think we’ve successfully explored or acted in that space. With my usual arrogance and desire to hear my own voice, I figured I’d have a go.

This is not to denigrate the exceptional work of advocates and activists in this room, or advocacy organisations like CCCCNSW, who do incredible work.

But we need to acknowledge that our advocacy has not been as successful, or as strategic, as we need it to be.

Galling though it may be, we also need to acknowledge that the private operators do advocacy better.

They’re kicking our backsides. The Australian Childcare Alliance has a full-time lobbyist at Parliament House.

They’ve cultivated a close relationship with the new Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley. A close-enough relationship that there is a more-than-passing resemblance to each other’s press releases.

The political agenda on children’s early education in this country is shaped by that advocacy.

So I have worked to focus my advocacy on policy, and politics.

My drive for advocacy has grown as my career has grown. My first love is working directly with children, but my career has slowly moved me away from day-to-day work with them. First as a Centre Director, and now as the ACT Territory Manager for Goodstart Early Learning.

The face-to-face work with children is crucial, it’s everything – and I salute those of you here today who are still in those roles.

From the first time I took on a Director’s role, I felt a powerful responsibility to advocate for the work of those in my team who were doing that tricky and complex work every day as Team Leaders, or assistant educators.

For me, this started with the Big Steps campaign. Although Directors are certainly not paid enough for the work they do, I felt that the privilege of the higher pay-rate, the ability to manage my own time, the greater ability with which I could access professional development and networking opportunities, conferred on me an ethical responsibility to advocate.

This has been particularly clear to me in my current role as an Area Manager – particularly in the new world of the National Quality Framework.

The Framework ask a lot of Centre Directors – they are legally responsible for their centres, with all the pressures and challenges that entails.

Those of us in roles such as mine, without legislative responsibilities and with no direct day-to-day, ongoing work with children, are in what my Manager and professional mentor gleefully describes as “made-up jobs”.

I am not in the ECEC National Law. The Government has not deemed my job to be essential to the successful education and care of Australia’s children.

I’m going to assume there are people in similar positions in the room today – don’t worry, I won’t make you put your hands up!

What I would ask you to do is to reflect critically on your roles – my challenge to you is if you are not advocating tirelessly for those who are carrying out the day-to-day teaching and education with children, you are not doing your job.

I am fortunate to work with an incredible team of Centre Directors in the ACT, and I’d like to just acknowledge their professionalism and work in their communities of children, families and educators.

I reflect every day on the privileges that my “made-up” job entails me, and if I cannot justify my work to that group of incredible women at the end of the day – then it’s not worth me being there.

For me, this means that above and beyond my day-to-day work, of which advocacy is certainly a part, it also means advocating above and beyond my 38 hours a week.

Anything less I could not ethically justify.

My particular focus with advocacy is politics. Political advocacy has always been one of the most common, and most effective, forms of advocacy as it is targeted at those who actually make the decisions.

My interest in politics stemmed largely from growing up as a teenager in the Howard years. I don’t want to get into a big discussion around Right vs. Left, but those 11 years left a deep impression on me and many in my generation.

The issue that particularly engaged me was refugee policy.

It seemed incredible to me, as a naive sixteen-year old, that we could actually make laws and decisions that treated people so cruelly.

That women and men working comfortably in offices in one of the most prosperous nations on Earth could sign documents and make telephone calls that would directly imperil the lives of people fleeing persecution that I could not even imagine.

Now, being from Canberra for the last 15 years, it’s very easy to reduce politics to bureaucracy – to people passing paper around with little-to-no impact on the real lives of people.

Our politics and policies on refugees and asylum seekers helped me realise that politics and policy have a direct impact on every one of our lives, whether we know it or not.

Just as those decisions can directly impact people fleeing persecution from outside Australia, decisions made in Canberra have a direct and deep impact on the work we do, and the communities we do it in.

They are the frameworks we put around our society.

The connection with early childhood policy took a bit longer to come to me, but since then it has informed my work as a professional in this sector.

It particularly “clicked” for me when I came to a single, clear realisation about our work.

Children’s education and care policy in this country is not about children.

It is about workforce participation.

The childcare sector in Australia is entirely set up, resourced and funded to ensure that families are at work and contributing to the economy.  This fact informs every part of our sector, every challenge and every frustration.

Australia’s entire policy focus on early childhood education, on both sides of politics, Labor and Liberal, and even in far-left parties like the Green, has nothing to do with children.

This almost made sense in the 1970s, when getting women into the workforce wasn’t just a social and moral challenge, but a practical one.

Women with children were expected to remain at home.

The strides that have been made in gender equality since then are due in no small part to the creation of a formal, regulated and affordable childcare sector.

Greater numbers of women in the workplace have forced organisations to slowly (in some cases, extremely slowly) adapt to the 21st Century.

The childcare sector played a large role in that, and is overwhelmingly positive. But more than 40 years later, the paradigm needs to shift.

It’s no longer enough for us to accept that the early childhood education and care sector is just there to “babysit” children so their parents can contribute to the economy.

The latest figures from DEEWR tell us that for the first time in Australia’s history, over a million children are now in some form of ECEC. This is a staggering amount, and represents a major challenge for Australian society.

At the beginning of my talk I mentioned our friend Judith Sloan. It’s important to analyse her perspective on ECEC beyond her ridiculous comments about “dimwits”.

Her article points to the underlying tension of our work. The notion of universal access early childhood education for all children is a direct attack on conservative “family values”.

The conservative argument is essentially that the best place for a child, any child, is in a stable home with Mum and Dad (certainly not two Dads, or two Mums, but we’ll save that for another time).

I never attended childcare when I was a young child. I still did well in school, have a University degree (admittedly not from a Uni that would meet with Judith’s approval) and have a great job in a sector I love.

My parents had no degrees in early childhood education, but helped set my brother and I up to work hard in our studies (primary, secondary and tertiary) and in our work.

My story would provide “evidence” for conservatives that access to early childhood programs is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.

However, I was extremely fortunate to have two well-educated, stable and loving parents with no mental health issues or other vulnerabilities.

I was given every chance to be successful, even before I was in school.

But we are part of a society where not every child has those same opportunities. Some children will grow up in challenging and disruptive environments, where their parents are suffering immense challenges of their own.

Advocating for universal access to ECE is about ensuring that any child, no matter the circumstances of their home life, can be given the same head start I was given.

So I believe that we are getting near a crossroads – I would actually like us to be at that crossroads now, but unfortunately I think we’re a way off even from that.

Brain research consistently tells us that the first five years are absolutely crucial. Long-term studies like the Australian Early Development Index and the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children also point to those formative years as the building blocks for later life.

With a million children now accessing some form of childcare in those foundational five years, it is no longer good enough for our sector to just be about workforce participation.

We have the incredible opportunity to be improving children’s lives right here and now, and in so doing drastically lower their risk of experiencing vulnerability throughout the rest of their lives.

Children who struggle early will continue to struggle, and will find it harder to engage in formal learning and study, increasing the challenges they will face in employment and housing.

These foundational years all take place before children set foot in a school – and yet our entire education focus for children, from a policy and political perspective, only really begins in Year 1 of school.

So is Australia ready to leave behind the paradigm of workforce participation, and adopt a truly child-centred approach to ECEC?

Yes, the majority of states and territories have some form of funded preschool, but it’s telling that over the last 2-3 years of public debate around David Gonski’s school reforms, preschool and long day care was conspicuously absent.

I’ll be blunt – that our sector was not represented in those policy discussions points to a significant failure on our part, and the need to significantly raise our levels of advocacy.

This was our chance to raise our voices – the challenges we as a society will be helping children to face throughout their childhood years can, and MUST, be addressed in early childhood.

And yet, nothing.

I look at the recent election, and the only time early childhood education and care was mentioned was in terms of fees, waiting lists, planning permits and workforce participation.

Again, this represents a significant failure of our advocacy.

I’m sorry to be the person at the birthday party who brings the tone down, and I understand I won’t be getting many invites to other parties after today!

But if we are to take our advocacy leadership seriously, we need to acknowledge our challenge.

There are advocates in this room who have done incredible work, who have spoken and written and banged their fists on tables around the country. CCCC has done incredible work.

But despite all of that, we have not shifted majority opinion. We have not changed enough minds.

The debate in Australia, beyond these walls today, is not about universal access. It’s not about children’s rights. It’s not about the potential for ECEC to lift children out of structural disadvantage.

It’s about fees. It’s about freezing the CCR. It’s about “flexible opening hours”.

As leaders in our sector, and as advocates for children, we have to do better. It is unacceptable to do anything less.

We know the importance of what we do. We know the challenges, we know the structural inequities that stand in our way. It’s no use convincing the people in this room.

Our advocacy has to go beyond that.

We also know that if we are serious about improving outcomes for children; if we are serious about upholding children’s rights and their voice in our society; then we have to be the ones who are raising our voices.

If people aren’t listening, it’s our job to make them listen. Are we using every opportunity to raise the profile of our work, demonstrate our professionalism and inform people of our potential?

Are we creating opportunities to do those things?

So that is our challenge. I am not doing enough. None of us are.

Until we are having debates in cafes and offices around the best way to fund true universal access to early childhood education for children, we aren’t doing enough.

Until a journalist in a national, televised debate asks a candidate running for Prime Minister what their plans are to use ECEC to improve outcomes for children at a foundational level, we have not done enough.

Until the right of children to fully and freely participate in quality early learning programs is a national priority, and embracing that is a cornerstone of our education, family and health policies, we have not done enough.

So, enjoy the day and particularly enjoy the cocktail party tonight. Because tomorrow, we’ve got some work to do.

I’ve talked a lot about what we’re not getting right, despite the hard work of people in this room today. What are my thoughts on the next steps?

Above all, be fearless. Have arguments. Speak your truth.

Through my limited reach as a writer and participant on social media, I have forcefully and doggedly argued views that have infuriated and aggravated friends and colleagues.

A big one was the Early Years Quality Fund.

A fund that would only reach 40% of the sector, would only last two years and would be awarded on essentially a “first-come, first-served” basis?

This was a deeply flawed funding model, and in my view offensive to me, and those I work with.

I publicly stated that I could not ethically support this Fund, and criticised United Voice for agreeing to it.

In the lead-up to the election, I also publicly voiced my criticism of the Labor Government for their implementation of the National Quality Framework.

This was at a time when the sector was being encouraged to almost band together and cheerlead for Labor.

My firm belief is that the Labor Government categorically failed to implement the NQF in a way that would ensure its survival and growth.

It was a once-in-a-generation chance to change the conversation on Childcare. Labor didn’t do it well enough.

Overlaying the requirements of the National Quality Framework without a plan to address the structural inequities of the system, including the sexist discrimination of low wages, was always going to be problematic.

Are they to be commended for at least attempting? Yes, but I cannot and will not allow partisanship to silence criticism where it is due.

The case for early childhood education reform is a generally “progressive” issue. But this does not mean that advocates for early childhood should just support and “cheerlead” for Labor.

As has been shown all too clearly with refugee policy, Labor is in many ways only a progressive party by comparison with the Coalition.

To put it clearly, blindly supporting Labor without criticism as the only progressive party in town means that if you are, you are now supporting sending pregnant women legally seeking asylum to a tent in Papua New Guinea.

It amazed me the amount of my progressive friends and colleagues who had joined the campaign for Labor, who were suddenly quiet about the issue of asylum seekers after the PNG “solution”.

They had been extremely happy to loudly berate and criticise the Liberal Party, quite rightly, for their policies.

Labor supporters who had criticised the undermining of Julia Gillard by Kevin Rudd and his supporters, suddenly donning Kevin 13 shirts after a quick change-up in the Labor leadership team quite soon before an election.

If the price of joining up with a political party is silence, it is too high.

Advocates should be fearless and furious with criticism. Advocacy should be targeted at politicians, without being tied to a single party.

Advocacy should be about our sector, not political victories for others.

I don’t like to give advice, but I would urge my colleagues in advocacy to remember that.

The issues surrounding our sector – feminism, contested rights between children and parents, the role of education in the social good – demand that we be strategic and smart with our advocacy.

Tying ourselves to a political party or a political ideology is a bad idea.

Another bad idea is to paraphrase Mark Twain, but as he very nearly said: “Loyalty to progressing the early childhood education sector: ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”

Advocacy is not just writing, not just attending rallies or forums. The Early Years Learning Framework encourages educators and teachers to look at every moment with a child, or group of children, as an opportunity to learn.

In exactly the same way, every moment in our day-to-day work is an opportunity to advocate for our professionalism, and the professionalism of the sector as a whole.

Every time you greet a family at the door, we could be advocating. Every time we have a pedagogical discussion with an educator, we could be advocating.

But I firmly believe we also have an obligation, and imperative, to advocate at that wider level – at the level of policy.

The Italian pedagogue and President of Reggio Children Carla Rinaldi encourages advocates to be a “megaphone for children’s voices”.

Aim it at Parliament House.

What made you angry? What frustrated you? When was your voice silenced? What made you want to yell at the TV screen, or your computer?

Write about it. Get it out there. Contact your local MP.

But do not fall victim of the “us versus them”, or “Left vs. Right”, or “Labor vs. Liberal”. As soon as we subsume our advocacy to that of a political ideology, we are no longer advocating. We’re advertising.

It can seem like a huge and uphill battle when you look at where the national discussion now.

Imagine having an election fought on the principles of children’s human rights and the magnifying and uplifting power of early childhood education.

It seems like at the moment as a people we are more focused on having cheap, available childcare.

But, fellow advocates, just remember, as Jon Stewart said, “You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.”

Thank you very much.

Thanks again to Community Child Care Co-operative for inviting me to speak. You can check out their website at http://ccccnsw.org.au/.

EYQF conditional funding withdrawn

The new Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley, appears to have confirmed that conditional funding to increase wages under Labor’s Early Years Quality Fund will not be delivered.

The Education Department letter – obtained by The Australian – was sent on Friday, before the Abbott government’s month-long review reports on whether it can claw back $300 million allocated by Labor for pay rises in the industry, to compensate for its increased quality reforms.

Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley has set a deadline of the end of this month for the independent report.

“If your organisation has not yet implemented wage increases or otherwise has not yet fulfilled the conditions of the commonwealth’s offer of funding, that offer of funding is hereby revoked,” the letter says.

“Your organisation should do nothing further to commit itself to wage increases in the expectation that EYQF (Early Youth [sic] Quality Fund) funding will be made available for those wage increases.”

An inevitable result. I publicly attacked the EYQF when it was first announced, and have done so ever since. It was, and is, appalling public policy.

It is important, vitally important, to remember that advocacy for our sector should not be tied to a single campaign, a single announcement, or a single political party.

The EYQF was a political victory for United Voice, not for the sector.

It was a last-ditch and desperate attempt by the out-going Labor Government to attempt to wedge the Coalition on childcare issues.

If the then-Government had taken the issue of professional wages seriously, they had six years in Government to do something about it. A fund that would apply to 40% of the sector, announced at the eleventh hour, was a joke.

So now we have early childhood centres who have, in good faith, applied for funds under the EYQF who will miss out. Threats of a class action are just threats at this stage, and I can’t anticipate that anyone in the ECEC sector will have the funds to launch a long and expensive court case.

The ECEC sector should immediately dismiss the EYQF, and union members should strongly advocate that only a solution that applies to the entire sector, without strings, should ever be agreed to on their behalf again.

Roll on the Pay Equity case at Fair Work Australia.

What is Labor’s legacy on ECEC?

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.

Wage rises for educators now in doubt

The AFR is reporting that the incoming Abbott Government will be “redistributing” funds from the Early Years Quality Fund and a similar wage-increase fund in the aged care sector.

The Coalition may reallocate the childcare fund, which was set up to distribute any taxpayer-subsidised pay rises for childcare workers.

It is unclear whether any childcare workers had received the wage top-up already because the Labor government was late to release the eligibility rules for the two-year wages subsidy, which was due to end in 2015.

The Coalition’s childcare policy states it would honour any contracts already made and the remaining funds would be kept in the government’s childcare budget.

It is entirely unclear what this will actually mean. No money has started rolling out to services, although some contracts have been signed.

Some services had received “conditional approval”, and the incoming Government has not made clear whether they will be honoured.

UPDATE: Early Childhood Australia have released a statement calling on the incoming Government to honour the funding commitments in the EYQF. The statement is worth reading in full, and highlights the inequities and divisions inherent in the Fund.

In order to be eligible for the fund, organisations were required to have an Enterprise Agreement (EA) in place with their employees. The creation of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ did not sit well with a sector that takes its ethics and commitment to social equity very seriously.  There was considerable dissension and concern in the early childhood sector, as demonstrated by the submissions to the Senate Inquiry Submissions on the Legislation.

 

Why I cannot support the Early Years Quality Fund package

The Federal Government’s recent announcement of The Early Years Quality Fund (EYQF), a two-year, $300 million-funded program to lift the wages of early childhood educators, marked a significant turning point in the national discussion about those who work with young children.

Bill Shorten, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, succinctly put the government’s position:

“It is no longer enough, I think, for Australia to simply rely upon the emotional, the intellectual and indeed the physical efforts of Australia’s childcare workers and not adequately remunerate them.”
Shorten also raised the issue of gendered wage discrimination in the sector: “I don’t think anyone seriously believes in Australia that if all the childcare workers in Australia were men, the pay would be as low as it is.”

I have been fighting with my colleagues in the Big Steps campaign to raise the wages of early childhood educators for years. It was affirming to finally hear government ministers state unequivocally that we are underpaid, unsupported and disrespected. I have written and spoken publicly about the need for the community to recognise and support our work.

Despite all this, I believe that this funding package has the potential to disastrously undermine the Early Childhood Education ECEC sector and the campaign for professional wages.

The EYQF is a single pot of money, and will only last for two years from July 2013. To get a share, services and organisations must have an approved Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that factors in the wage increases, and will also need to evidence that they are actively working towards meeting the Federal Government’s new National Quality Standards for ECEC.

The wages increases range in scale from about $3 per hour for a Certificate III-qualified educator, to over $6 for an early childhood teacher.

The major catch is that only about 40 per cent of ECEC centres will be eligible for this funding. They will have to apply to the EYQF, meet the evidence criteria, and once the funding has run out – that’s it.

So the Government’s solution to the identified problem of gender-based wage inequity is an undignified race to see who can apply for the limited funds — putting ECEC organisations in the position of squabbling over the donation jar.

The Government concedes that the EYQF will be a short-term measure. The real focus will be to supporting a wage equity case at Fair Work Australia.

This is a worthy aim, but in the meantime the symptoms of this temporary scheme won’t help a struggling sector. Competition over a small pool of funds is likely to deepen the divide between not-for-profit and private providers, who are already fighting over an ever-dwindling number of qualified educators.

Staff will simply shift employers to those who have been fortunate enough to access funding, leaving huge staff shortages in other parts of the sector — directly disadvantaging children.

As I have written before, the ECEC sector is already split between community-based not-for-profit operations, and private operators.

The Government’s generous childcare subsidies have allowed private operators to grow and thrive. It’s also given them plenty to spend on advocacy against improvements to quality and educator-child ratios.

In effect, they’re is paying the private operators to work against them, allowing them to employ lobbyists and use conservative media connections to undermine attempts to reform the sector and provide greater outcomes for children.

It is understandable that the Government does not want additional funding going to those centres. However, the current structure of the sector as a free-market free-for-all is the direct responsibility of the government, who refused to heed the lessons of the 2008 ABC Learning collapse and repudiate the for-profit model of early childhood education and care.

United Voice, the union for early childhood educators (who negotiated this deal), are understandably keen to ensure that their members benefit as opposed to private operators who are uniformly anti-union.

I also firmly believe that early childhood educators should join their union and actively work towards the Big Steps campaign, as the power of collective action to address injustice has been demonstrated time and time again in other low-paid and low-valued work (such as nursing and aged care).

But celebrating a deal that segregates the sector reflects the failure of those involved to understand that this fight is not about individuals, but the role of an early childhood educator. This is bigger than any one campaign, or any one announcement.

As with Fair Work’s decision that the Social and Community Awards wage rate must rise, this is about valuing the work of those who work with young children and removing continuing wage discrimination on the basis of gender.

The government has publicly acknowledged (finally) that the early childhood educator role is undervalued. The professional standing and respect of the entire sector, not a select few.

We either value educators enough to treat all of them with the same respect and recognition, or we pick and choose — devaluing us all.

This article was originally published by New Matilda on April 22, 2013.