Childcare back in education – but what will be the major changes?

Newly-installed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball has announced a major reshuffle of the Government’s ministerial positions, giving early childhood education and care its third minister in this term of Government.

Childcare will now fall back under the umbrella of an Education Minister – a position now held by Simon Birmingham, a relatively junior Senator from South Australia.

In general terms, this is of course a positive outcome for the sector. It was moved to the Department of Social Services (DSS) under Scott Morrison late last year, an apparent indication of the Government seeing it primarily as a workforce participation strategy. Including it in the Education department should continue Australia’s slow move to viewing early learning as fundamental to long-term success.

This news is of course very new, and we don’t yet have any idea how Senator Birmingham will reshape the Education portfolio he is inheriting from Liberal warrior Christopher Pyne. But, it’s worth raising a couple of quick points/concerns in the wake of this announcement.

Firstly, bureaucratic. The shift of childcare to the DSS would have required a significant amount of administrative changes and restructuring. This will now need to be transferred back to the Education Department – with all the challenges, difficulties and technical issues that will result. It may seem minor, but it will be an issue.

Secondly, departmental. A lot of the “nuts and bolts” of childcare administration may still sit within the DSS, not Education. How well will this now work between the two Departments? This will be particularly relevant to the Child Care Benefit, and programs like the Inclusion Support Program.

Thirdly, political. The Government’s current “Families Package” is facing difficulties in the Senate. It includes a number of measures that will adversely affect vulnerable children and families. Will there be a reset on this package? Birminigham is, on the face of it, likely to be less comabative in his approach than either Pyne, or the new cuddly Scott Morrison. Dare we hope for a more consultative and listening approach? Which, unfortunately, leads to the fourth:

Fourthly, policy. Childcare’s move back to Education could (and I shudder as I type this) lead to another round of consultation with the sector. This would be following the pre-NQF period, the Productivity Commission, the ACECQA review, two Senate committees and the Government’s own consultation this year. Consultation fatigue doesn’t even begin to cover this. Any more consultation will not reveal what has already been made abundantly clear. Investment in quality early education works.

With an election due next year, Senator Birmingham may have less than a year to make his mark on childcare. With that timeframe, we shouldn’t have to wait too long to see what direction he and the new PM will head in.

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Accentuating the positives

Early childhood education and care has been moved out of the education portfolio. Our new Federal Minister has a track record in blunt, non-consultative decision making (as well as locking up children on remote island prisons). In general, the Federal Government is buffeted by distractions and “gaffes” of its own making.

On the face of it, it’s hard to be positive about the likelihood of any positive reform to Australia’s children’s education and care sector. The current Government is firmly opposed to any budget increase to this area, and appear far more focused on “crackdowns” on a minority of operators and services engaging in financial misbehaviour.

However, despite the noted cynic I am, I determined to find some positives. And it turns out, there’s a big one.

The Government has to get this right, or their current woes will seem tame by comparison.

Australia’s child care sector is one of the most expensive for families in the OECD. This has inevitable flow-on effects to workforce participation (particularly for women), and has a demonstrated impact on Australia’s overall economic performance.

The Coalition may be ideologically opposed to Government funding of child care (as Mums have always done it for free), but they are now in the absolute minority on this issue. Access to affordable, high quality child care is now a necessity. In a short space of time, it will be seen as a right.

The Government have repeatedly laid the blame for the sector’s woes at the feet of the previous Labor Government, but that window of opportunity has now closed. This is now firmly the problem of this Government.

Given their current woes, they will be desperate for a big win. What better area than the one that is a pressing issue for a huge number of families? Medicare backflips, knighthoods and all the rest would recede pretty rapidly into the distance if the Government announced sweeping reforms to the child care sector that maintained (and extended) quality outcomes for children, while improving accessibility and affordability.

Is this likely? Perhaps not. But it should be remembered that Tony Abbott has already had to back down from his “signature” Paid Parental Leave policy, with the expectation that some of this money will go to addressing child care issues.There are even reports on the day I post this that the Government is still working through its plans on this.

If we’ve learned anything about this Government, months and months of hard-faced insistence that their policies will be enacted are pretty easily forgotten when they are backed into a corner.

Over a million children are now utilising some form of child care in this country. All of them have their own challenges (major and minor) navigating Australia’s complex system. That’s a lot of voters ready to put pressure on the Government.

Failing to adequately address accessibility and affordability issues will be an unmitigated disaster, both for the sector and for the Government. Even maintaining the status quo with some tinkering at the edges won’t cut it, given that Abbott has committed 2015 to being the year of family policy.

But positive reform of the sector, improving accessibility and affordability for all and bringing the child care sector into the 21st Century would be a huge victory for Tony Abbott on this front. It’s not hard to imagine that a win that size would not be tempting for him.

So keep that flicker of positivity alive in 2015 – and keep an eye on the Government’s desperation levels.

Government arrives at policy position the rest of Australia arrived at 18 months ago

In what is presumably another example of the Prime Minister tackling the numerous barnacles that seem to be stubbornly attached to the ship of Government, Tony Abbott has foreshadowed that 2015 will see some tinkering to his signature Paid Parental Leave scheme. This will apparently see a focus on low- and middle-income families, as well as “more available and more affordable child care as well.”

As in many policy areas with this apparently “consultative” and “listening” Government, it seems that everyone else in Australia (including the majority of his own party) came to this realisation many, many months ago. Tony Abbott’s stubborn determination to hang on to the original “Rolls-Royce” version of the PPL was turning in to some sort of ongoing performance-art piece on political incompetence.

It’s important to note however that no actual details have been provided regarding any redistribution of funds from PPL to childcare. Presumably Cabinet s sifting through the Productivity Commission’s report into the sector, utilising its incredibly broad and diverse breadth of experience in these kind of issues to develop sensible and considered policies.

(Quick reminder below of the immense diversity and breadth of life experience in Cabinet. I dare anyone to find a group of old white guys more reflective of today’s Australian community than that bunch below.)

Various media outlets are reporting that the “tinkering” will see significantly less money spent on women earning $150,000 and over, with the savings essentially redirected into funding nannies and other in-home care arrangements.

I’ve written before about the complications that would ensue from simply pushing for more nannies. Clearly, the best solution to the issues facing the childcare sector is a well-funded, high-quality and easily accessible early childhood education and care sector. A significant redirection of funds into Long Day Care in particular could reap significant benefits.

We’ll likely know a lot more in early 2015. But given the Government’s track record in other policy announcements, we’ll likely wish we didn’t know a lot more in early 2015.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for?

Disappointingly, the Government continues to use the Productivity Commission to paper over its complete lack of a childcare policy. Beyond pointing out the issues and declaring war on “the dead hand of government regulation”, the childcare sector and the community in general have no idea what the Abbott Government think should happen in this area.

This week, the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley may have given us a brief and tantalising spoiler. Responding to questions on what policies the Productivity Commission may propose, Ms Ley was quoted in The Australian:

“Ms Ley said “something is wrong with this picture” when asked about working parents unable to find places because they were taken by the children of parents who were not working.”

A simple statement that jibes well with the Government’s overall economic message of “lifters and leaners”, but in the context of childcare it is worth digging a little deeper on what Ms Ley may be telling us.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for? Let’s look at the candidates.

1. The economy

The strong contender. Freeing up parents to contribute to the workforce has obvious benefits to the economy at large. This imperative has been a significant part of most countries creation of their own childcare policies and frameworks, and Australia is no different.

Australia’s economy is performing exceptionally by international standards, but workforce participation is a huge driver of growth and wealth.

2. Families

When we say families, we have to be upfront and say “mothers”. In Australia it is still women that face the greatest challenge in returning to the workforce after having children.

The benefits to families are not just about returning to work. Quality early learning programs help prepare children for formal schooling, and have the potential to remediate the effects of family instability or vulnerability. International research has demonstrated that early learning has the potential to change the destinies of families.

The childcare sector is also designed to facilitate empowerment of women to maintain their careers alongside their families – but the catch in Australia has always been that childcare services need to be affordable, accessible and of high quality. Since the deregulation of the sector in the 1990s, Australia was struggled with all three of those indicators.

3. Children

And the last on our list of candidates: children. The fundamental irony of the sector is that is directed to provide education and care to over 1 million Australian children, but the rights and needs of children are usually far down on the list of priorities.

The National Quality Framework was a strong attempt to provide a foundational expectation of quality in the outcomes for children attending childcare services. More structural reforms were needed to address the issues created by deregulation however, which were best exemplified in the spectacular collapse of ABC Learning in 2008.

Returning to Ms Ley’s statement, we can see that while the economy and workforce participation are high on the list of goals for childcare, children are not getting a look-in. She is indicating the Government would prefer that only children of working parents have the right to access childcare. This is a significant statement.

Advocates for early childhood education, including myself, view access to quality childcare as not just an economic issue, but a matter of human rights. Children have the human right to attend a quality early learning program, regardless of their socio-economic background or the current circumstances of their parents.

Australia does not currently have strong record on the upholding of children’s rights. We are currently turning ourselves into outcasts in the international community with our illegal and inhumane treatment of child asylum seekers; each day of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reveals new horrors from Australia’s dark past of systemic failures to protect children; and child protection agencies around the country struggle to successfully keep children safe in the face of budget cuts and under-resourcing.

Approaching the sector only from the perspective of improving the economy leaves the system open to fail children – as it shockingly has in Ireland and the United States.

The importance of early childhood education, including strong childcare policies and structures, is now internationally recognised. As with the issues of asylum seekers, climate change and a host of others, Australia will fall behind the rest of the world by failing to properly invest in childcare.

But placing the rights of children at the centre of a restructuring of our approach to childcare has the primary benefit of being the right thing do by our society’s children, but the added benefits of meeting the outcomes for the economy as well.

A childcare sector that is properly funded and supported doesn’t have to pick and choose between the three outcomes listed above – it can actually choose Option 4: all of the above.

Australian childcare doesn’t need a “nanny state”, what it needs is a system that works

According to leaks from the Productivity Commission’s forthcoming draft report into Child Care and Early Learning, published by The Australian, it appears that the Commission will be recommending streamlining the two current childcare subsidies (the Child Care Benefit and the Child Care Rebate) into one payment, means-testing it to some extent, and allowing the rebate to cover the employment of nannies.

The ability to claim rebates or tax deductions for nannies has been a long-standing political football in Australia. The issue appeared to be dormant for quite some time during the previous Labor government as they worked on strengthening the existing formal childcare system through their ambitious National Quality Framework.

Labor’s decision early on in its first term to raise the Child Care Rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent laid the groundwork for the issue to return many years later. Attendance in formal childcare skyrocketed, and currently sits at over 1 million children accessing some form of education and care service (primarily long day care).

This created fresh issues of both affordability and accessibility, which the then-opposition and now Government has consistently used to attack the ALP. This reached its peak during the 2013 election, with calls for nannies to be tax deductible. Abbott briefly flirted with the idea before handballing it to the Productivity Commission.

The issues surrounding subsidising the use of nannies are more complex than they initially appear. In some key areas, particularly metro Sydney and Melbourne, Australia does face an accessibility problem. Making it easier to employ an in-home nanny would seem like a relatively simple policy decision to address that.

But as is so often the case with Australia’s childcare sector, this would be a short-term bandaid solution that would do nothing to resolve the fundamental problems facing the community on this issue.

Even with a rebate, nannies would still inevitably be the privilege of the well-off. This is an issue in a country rooted in egalitarian principles – even when those principles bend and flex in the appropriate political climate.

But the biggest issue would be the equating of a home nanny with the formal education and care sector. Having both essentially under the same system devalues the hard work, education and commitment of Australia’s early learning teachers and educators.

Equating the teaching that now takes place under the National Quality Framework, which requires more qualified staff and higher standards of early learning provision, with the household duties of a nanny is a dangerous precedent to set.

Around the world, more and more countries and governments are recognising the need for investment in and strengthening of their childcare and preschool sectors. US president Barack Obama has made it a key policy for his second term, while a dramatic expansion of the UK childcare sector will be a major election issue in that country next year.

The Abbott Government’s instruction to the Productivity Commission in its terms of reference clearly outlined that no extra funding of the sector would be made available. In global terms, this is a backwards and out-of-step restriction given that investment in early education is now seen as one of the most positive economic and social investments a government can make.

Extending the rebate to nannies is particularly concerning in this context, as the funding for it will have to come from existing budgeted funds currently committed to the childcare sector.

The main problem with “the nanny issue” is that the issue is not really about nannies at all.

Australia’s childcare sector is under-funded, fragmented and largely out of the control of the Government since the deregulation policies of the 1990s. The issues of accessibility and affordability directly stem from this.

The solution is not to hire nannies, but to properly review the current system and then invest in creating a modern and internationally-respected childcare sector that meets the needs of children and families.

Australian childcare doesn’t need a “nanny state”. What it needs is a system that works.

This article was originally published on the ABC’s The Drum website.