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Blog Policy

The Abbott Government is playing the community off against itself on the right to childcare

The Productivity Commission is due to hand down its draft report into the Childcare and Early Learning sector this month. As the deadline approaches, we are finally beginning to see indications of policy approach from the Federal Government in this area.

The Coalition spent most of its time in Opposition, and so far all of its time in Government, blasting the ALP for inefficient management of the childcare sector. “Costs have skyrocketed”, they’ve declared; “educators are drowning in red tape”, they’ve proclaimed.

Over the last week a new angle has become clearer. The ALP’s mismanagement has left the system open to rorters and fraudsters. Decent, hard-working families are being denied places at their local childcare centre as the service is full-to-the-brim with the children of “stay-at-home-Mums”.

So determined to drag childcare into the Government’s overall narrative of “lifters versus leaners”, the Government has even started to demonise the very “stay-at-home-Mums” that during the Howard years were feted and showered with election-eve spending at the slightest hint of a poll drop.

The Government has been determined to reframe a difficult post-Budget period into a classic “us against them” battle, and it was inevitable that the complex and difficult issues around quality, affordability and accessibility of childcare would similarly be split.

Let’s get the obvious retorts out the way first. The Government has provided no data, statistics or numbers on any of the claims it has made. None at all. It has merely presented these issues as facts, and expected people to respond to them as such.

There are already clear, priority-of-access guidelines in place for all long day care services which clearly prioritise working families. If the Department of Education has specific evidence that specific services are flouting these guidelines, in breach of their operational commitments, then they can be followed up.

The Government has also alleged widespread rorting of a subsidy for parents who are studying (Commonwealth Jobs, Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance or JETCCFA scheme), and has again directly implicated service providers. Apparently “some” parents are over-claiming this subsidy, and “increasing number” of services are claiming for services not provided and “a number” of services are overcharging to claim more of the subsidy.

It might be hard to pick through the dense layer of hard data and statistics quoted above from the Assistant Minister for Education’s press release, but it’s hard to actually tell how much of a problem this is from the information provided.

It’s the same story with the bludging parents taking up all the childcare places. The Assistant Minister has provided no evidence or data on the amount or increase of this problem. “It’s a very frustrating thing when you can’t get a place and you are a working parent and others who are not already have a place,’’ said the Minister – and she is undoubtedly right.

But the problem is that the Government are not proposing anything that will actually resolve these issues.

What the Government is doing is finally giving us an indication of what their policy approach to childcare will be.

A Productivity Commission into the sector was the right call, and should actually have been carried out some time ago. Childcare and early learning is an entirely different sector now than it was in the 1990s.

But the Commission has been critically held back from actually proposing the reforms that are desperately needed. The terms of reference provided to the Commission by the Treasurer Joe Hockey explicitly state that no further budget funds will be provided to childcare overall, despite investment in early childhood education being internationally recognised as best practice.

Given that restraint, the Commission will not be able to propose any policy changes that will actually fix the chronic underfunding and fragmentation of the childcare sector.

It is in that context that the Government’s framing of the debate becomes clearer. Despite the irrefutable evidence that access to high quality childcare has a hugely positive benefit not just to children and families but society as a whole, the Government will be making it harder for some children to access childcare.

For children’s advocates, every child has the right to access a high quality childcare service.

But rather than invest, repair and expand the sector to meet the needs of the modern Australian community, the Abbott Government will seek to play the community off against itself on which families and children have the right to access a service.

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Blog Policy

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.

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Advocacy Blog

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.

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Blog Policy

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.

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Advocacy News

UN takes on the Vatican over children’s rights

Can-1-Vatican-2

The United Nation Committee on the Rights of the Child has strongly questioned the Vatican’s commitment to children’s rights, as reported in The Guardian [The linked report may contain details that could cause distress].

In particular, the committee slammed the practice of moving priests found to have abused children from parish to parish or to other countries “in an attempt to cover up such crimes”. Last month a Vatican delegation in Geneva for questioning by the panel accepted criticisms of this practice and said it no longer went on.

But the committee nonetheless noted: “The practice of offenders’ mobility, which has allowed many priests to remain in contact with children and to continue to abuse them, still places children in many countries at high risk of sexual abuse, as dozens of child sexual offenders are reported to be still in contact with children.”

The Committee not only questions the Vatican’s response to the abuse of children, but more generally the Church’s teachings on abortion and homosexuality.

It is great to see that, finally, the Vatican is being held to account for the systemic failure to protect children.

The Committee will undoubtedly come under fierce criticism for its direct assessment of the Vatican’s appalling failings in this area. But religion has shielded the abuse of children, some of whom experiencing vulnerabilities and disadvantage that the Church should have been protecting, for far too long.

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Advocacy News

Inquiry into children in immigration detention

child detention

The Australian Human Rights Commission will hold a National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention this year. It is the first such Inquiry in ten years.

Today, however there are approximately 1,000 children in closed immigration detention. This is a higher number than at any point during the period covered by the last inquiry, and the Commission’s monitoring work reveals that key concerns remain. With this increase in child detainees, it is time to look at this issue again.

This inquiry will be able to discover what has changed in the ten years since the last investigation, and find out whether Australia is meeting its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The treatment of children in our immigration detention system has been viewed critically by the United Nations.

The Inquiry will look at a broad scope of issues affecting children in detention, including the affects of lengthy detention, provision of services and the experiences of children separated from their families.

The Inquiry will also consult with Megan Mitchell, the National Commissioner for Children, on implications for Australia’s adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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News Quality

Can the US make much-needed changes to its ECE sector?

Laura Bornfreund and Conor Williams have examined President Obama’s second-term focus on early childhood education in The Atlantic.

While early education’s policy reality hasn’t lived up to the last five years’ rhetoric, there is some evidence of a silver lining. Think of it like a rail system: it’s as though we’ve spent half a decade designing and laying new high-speed rails linking sparkling, as-yet unused train stations. We’ve invested in shiny, state-of-the-art engines. But we haven’t yet bought fuel or enough cars to serve all of the system’s young “passengers.”

President Obama has another two years of office left, and is facing incredible political hurdles. It remains to be seen if anything more can be achieved on this issue – which is a shame, as it can and must be a vital part of addressing rising inequality in that country.

It stands in contrast to Australia, where in 2014 we could actually be moving backwards on higher standards and greater outcomes for children’s learning and wellbeing.

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Advocacy News

Listening to the voices of children

From April 2014, children from a number of countries will be able to directly take reports of human rights abuses to the United Nations. But not Australian children. Paula Gerber, Associate Professor of Human Rights Law at Monash University, explains.

Australia ratified the convention in 1990 and has also ratified both of its other Optional Protocols, one on child soldiers and the other on the sale of children into prostitution and child pornography. But can we expect Australia to ratify this latest protocol?

The answer is probably “eventually”. In other words, we shouldn’t hold our breath. Although Australia, under the Hawke government, was quick to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has been less keen to submit itself to the complaints procedures under various UN human rights treaties.

 Since the famous Toonen decision in 1994, which found Tasmania’s laws criminalising homosexuality to be a breach of human rights, Australia has been found to have violated the human rights of complainants on at least 33 occasions.

Australia’s history with the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) is complex. Despite ratifying the Convention in 1990, it has been slow to adopt many of the Optional Protocols.

Gerber explains that the UN Committee that oversees the UNCROC has regularly been critical of Australia’s approach to supporting children’s rights. Right now, Australia is actively placing children in danger in immigration detention. We are also receiving horrific stories from the Royal Commission into child abuse on organisational and systemic failings in our support systems for children.

As one of the most prosperous and secure nations on Earth, Australia is in a position to be a standard-bearer for children’s rights. It remains to be seen when, or even if, this will ever be the case.

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Advocacy News

UNICEF release State of the World’s Children Report

UNICEF has released its annual “State of the World’s Children Report”.

Thirty years have passed since The State of the World’s Children began to publish tables of standardized global and national statistics aimed at providing a detailed picture of children’s circumstances.

Much has changed in the decades since the first indicators of child well-being were presented. But the basic idea has not: consistent, credible data about children’s situations are critical to the improvement of their lives – and indispensable to realizing the rights of every child.

Data continue to support advocacy and action on behalf of the world’s 2.2 billion children, providing governments with facts on which to base decisions and actions to improve children’s lives. And new ways of collecting and using data will help target investments and interventions to reach the most vulnerable children.

As usual, the report includes some incredible statistics on children’s development, education and how their rights are being upheld (or otherwise).

The site includes some fantastic interactive explorations of the numbers that make up the global picture for children. Some of the incredible statistics include:

  • 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5 in Sierra Leone;
  • In half of the world’s countries, 80% of children 2–14 years old have been subjected to violent discipline

The report is interesting to read alongside “Children’s Chances: How Countries Can Move From Surviving to Thriving”, which also presents a wealth of data on how countries are progressing with children’s rights.

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Blog

Lighting Fires is back for 2014!

Welcome back to Lighting Fires for 2014!

Thanks to all those who shared, commented and engaged in discussions on the blog (and on Twitter and Facebook). It’s been great fun exploring the political and policy dimensions of early childhood education in Australia.

I’m excited to keep up with the writing this year, as 2014 is going to a seminal year for the sector. 2014 will see:

  • The Productivity Commission report into Childcare and Learning;
  • The ACECQA Review; and
  • The Wage Equity Case for Fair Work Australia.

There has never been a more important time for the sector to be united and professional in its advocacy for children and their human rights to education.

I’m looking forward to being part of the many conversations that will be happening this year. Please subscribe to the blog to keep up with my posts, and please follow me on my second home – Twitter! You can find me @liammcnicholas.

I also have a Facebook page this year, so please join the conversation there as well.

I’d also love to open up the blog to other commentators, advocates and educators in the sector. If you’d like to post an article or opinion on the site, please contact me at liam.mcnicholas@gmail.com.

Here’s to a big year for ECEC in 2014!