The way we think about early childhood education has changed a lot in a relatively short space of time. It’s amazing to remember that across Australia, guaranteed access to preschool education in the year before school is a very recent initiative. The Universal Access commitment from all Australian Governments (Federal, State and Territory) was only agreed in 2009. For a long time, education was something that only happened once children started formal primary education.
Mid-way into the endless 2016 election campaign, Labor has released the details of its early childhood education and care policies.
From July, the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector will face some significant changes to the way support to improve quality approaches is provided. The Federal Government will cease funding Professional Support Coordinators (PSCs) in each State and Territory, while Inclusion Support Providers (ISPs) will continue with an expanded funding framework.
Additional funding to support inclusion issues is of course very welcome. The current Inclusion Support system has been underfunded for many years, particularly in the funding able to be provided to services to be able to raise the educator:child ratio to support inclusive practice. But what will this additional funding achieve, and is it worth the loss of the PSCs?
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?
The National Quality Framework (NQF) reforms acknowledge that good outcomes for children can only be supported by qualified and professional educators, who regularly reflect on their own – and their colleagues’ – practice. As with any profession, research and knowledge is always changing and being updated. It’s important that educators, no matter what their qualifications or experience, always remember to give themselves time and space to discuss and analyse their own work.
Once a year or so, another report, research document or news article appears that highlights the low numbers of male teachers working in early childhood and primary schools. Another was released in the past month, and tells familiar stories of isolation and suspicion.
The problem is tricky to solve, and has been for decades. It’s tricky because the problem isn’t really “the problem”. It’s a symptom of a number of inter-connected and entrenched issues, which are particularly thorny in early childhood.
The partisan report from the Senate Committee hearings into the Jobs for Families Package clearly articulate the Government’s view of ECEC as parent welfare, not education for children.
After consultations, public hearings and duelling economic modelling at ten paces, the long-awaited Senate report into the Jobs for Families has been released. Predictably, the Government-majority Committee has recommended the Senate pass the package as it currently stands. Labor and the Greens delivered dissenting reports.
For advocates in the sector with a focus on children (not workforce participation with a side order of children’s rights), it’s a tough read.
Three years, three Ministers, two Departments, one Productivity Commission Inquiry – Zero progress.
Today’s announcement from the Prime Minister that we could be heading to the polls as soon as July marks as good a time as any to reflect on the Abbott/Turnbull Government’s achievements in early childhood policy since 2013.
Well, at least this won’t take too long.
Access to and affordability of ECEC was one of the big issues in the 2013 election. The then-Opposition Coalition had campaigned hard on ensuring a better-structured sector that would be more affordable to families. This was primarily to be achieved through a Productivity Commission inquiry.
Tony Abbott and the Coalition won the election, and the inquiry was set in motion. Sussan Ley was appointed as the Minister for the sector. Her time in the role can mostly be marked by the phrases “we’ll wait and see what the Productivity Commission recommends” and “it’s all Labor’s fault”, as well as overseeing an unnecessary fight over Universal Access Preschool funding with every single state and territory and floating thought-bubbles about Government-funded nannies.
Ley’s tenure as Minister marked no actual policy direction or announcements. Her support for the National Quality Framework was tenuous at best, and her relationship with the sector was poor. I imagine she was as happy to see the back of ECEC policy as we were to see her move on to Health.
The biggest milestone of the Age of Ley was the Productivity Commission (PC) report into the sector, which promised to be a game-changing proposal for fundamental structural reform. In the end – not so much. Two years on, the PC’s Final Report has all but vanished from the discussion. It ended up being an extremely lengthy exercise in fiddling around the edges which, while disappointing, was inevitable given the restriction placed on the PC to only make proposals within the current budget for ECEC.
The Commission finally reported to the Government in November 2014, meaning that any proposed budget changes wouldn’t be in place until the next Federal Budget in May 2015. Getting on to two years after they were elected.
Keen to ensure that the sector wouldn’t be bored during this waiting period, Tony Abbott followed up his Grocery Code of Conduct by putting Ley out of everyone’s misery, shifting ECEC out of Education and making it the responsibility of children’s friend and advocate Scott Morrison.
Morrison, fresh from overseeing the mental, physical and emotional torture of children in island concentration camps, went full-tilt into “Loveable Old Scott” mode, promising to sort out the funding of the sector and the attendant affordability issues.
Morrison introduced the foundations of the “Jobs for Families” package that is currently before the Senate. That is literally about all I can actually remember from his time in the role. Good work Scott, have a go at Treasurer as a reward.
Which brought us the downfall of Abbott, the introduction of the agile and nimble Malcolm Turnbull as PM and the appointment of fresh-faced Simon Birmingham as the third Minister to take the wheel of ECEC policy.
Birmingham has continued trying to get the Jobs for Families Package through the Parliament, with the innovative and agile tactic of making it even worse.
It’s hard to believe that three years on, and literally nothing has happened in ECEC. The Government’s reform package will not pass before the election. After decrying Labor’s inadequacy in handling this portfolio, the ability of the Government to achieve literally nothing is almost impressive.
We’ve got a little while before the election, double-dissolution or not, and it’s possible we may see some wider election promises in this area. It seems more likely that they’ll just continue to the claim the Jobs for Families Package is the magical fixer of all things.
Three years of inaction in ECEC is ridiculous and pathetic. Let’s hope the next three see positive moves forward.
More than two years since its large-scale look into the structure and implementation of early childhood education and care funding, the Productivity Commission will be dipping its toe back into the sector. Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced on Friday that:
Starting today, the inquiry will examine the current information available in early childhood education and schooling and make recommendations about how to improve the evidence on which future government action is based.
The announcement was somewhat out of left field, and beyond the usual statements around the importance of data and research it’s unclear exactly why this inquiry has been commissioned.
The focus on ECEC is welcome though, and somewhat at odds with a Government that has consistently rolled back language to more old-school terms like childcare.
The Terms of Reference are up on the Productivity Commission website, and state that:
Improved access and greater ability to link and analyse national data could enhance the quality and scope of national education evidence that can be used to monitor educational outcomes and inform policy development and evaluation.
The scope of the Inquiry seems to be focused on how data can be better collected and then shared between Government agencies. Data collection in ECEC is fairly patchy, and not really focused on learning outcomes. It will be interesting to see what the Commission recommends in this area.
The inquiry is due to report back by December – after the next election. Consultation processes are yet to be announced.
“My dataset is better than yours” was the most common refrain heard during today’s public hearings in the Jobs for Families Child Care Package. I was fortunate enough to attend, and while there were no nails in the coffins of this reform package, it’s certainly not looking terribly well and probably is in need of some medical attention.
I tweeted at length about it earlier this morning, so just wanted to post a quick summary of the main highlights from my point of view.
1. The impact on Indigenous children is appalling
Listening to the testimony from the SNAICC representatives was truly hard, as they respectfully but forcefully outlined the likely impact of these reforms on Indigenous children.
It’s incredible that mere weeks after the Closing the Gap report revealed our failure to meet the early childhood attendance goal, we’re seriously considering implementing reforms that would make it more difficult for Indigenous children to access ECEC.
2. Who’s got the best data?
The Government has two reports in its crosshairs – an ANU report commissioned by ECA and a Deloitte report commissioned by SNAICC – that had the temerity to suggest the reforms might be bad for many children and their families.
The Government has pointed to the reports not using the best data available. Which is understandable, given that the Government has refused to release data on crucial parts of this reform. It is madness that we are considering passing legislation that we know so little about.
3. Bureaucrats bereft, basically
The hour spent in the company of no less than six bureaucrats from the Department of Education was particularly terrifying. Answers to questions took agonisingly long to produce, and seemed in many places to be a “best guess”. Consultation processes, described by the sector as ranging from woeful to comedic, were “extensive”.
4. Want ECEC? Get a job
We at least gained crystal-clear clarity around how the Government views early childhood education. Senator McKenzie, Committee Chair, at one point left the beaten track entirely for some bizarre point about mothers going to yoga classes while their children were in childcare – on the public dollar, for shame!
For the Government, funding ECEC is viewed as welfare funds. Not funding early learning, but funding welfare, and just like every other form of welfare funding they begrudge every single cent spent on it.
The beating heart of this package (the JOBS FOR FAMILIES package, the clue is in the title) is punishing children for their employment “choices” of their families.
5. Gymnastic advocacy
Which leads to my last point. The dexterity required for people and organisations to suggest that this is a “good” package that can be made better with some minor amendments is now incredible, verging on the impossible. The litany of issues with this rushed, under-explained and data-poor legislation were recounted endlessly today. Every major part of the reform package has serious structural issues. The Activity Test. Closure of BBF services. The hourly benchmark fee. The six-hour blocks of funding. The lack of transparency over eligibility for the Child Care Subsidy.
At a certain point, when every part of the car is broken, you get rid of it and save for a new one. It’s time to throw this package out and start again.