The loss of the PSCs will make for a less inclusive sector

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?

Continue reading “The loss of the PSCs will make for a less inclusive sector”

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For want of some data, the battle was lost

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“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.

Who should be at the centre of our advocacy?

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a piece on modelling commissioned by Goodstart Early Learning on the possible economic impact of the Government’s current proposed early childhood education and care (ECEC) reform package. I raised my personal concerns as an advocate on the report, why it was commissioned and how it was used.

I’ve linked to the piece above, but the main points in summary are:

  1. Uncertainty about why Goodstart would commission this report at all, given they are an early childhood organisation and not Government spokespeople;
  2. Serious concern with the facts of the report itself, which excludes both the Activity Test and subsidy cap from the modelling, essentially rendering it worthless; and
  3. How the report was used to further the political objectives of a Government which is seeking to slash access to ECEC for children based on the employment status of their family.

Goodstart were, unsurprisingly, not too happy with my analysis, and wrote to me asking me to publish their response. Which I did.

Last week, Early Childhood Australia (ECA) published a post by ECA CEO Samantha Page which discussed the importance of making economic arguments as part of ECEC advocacy. The post explicitly mentions “several commentators” being unhappy with the Goodstart-commissioned report, but does not name them or link to their pieces. I cannot help but find the timing interesting, but after reaching out to ECA they were unable to provide any further details of who these “several” commentators are, or links to the pieces that they are referring to.

I believe it’s fairly safe to assume the post was referring to me. Which means I will now have to, once again, defend the initial Goodstart post before moving on to discussing the ECA piece in more depth given their public “review” of my work.

As I have previously stated, ECA’s post does not address the serious issues with the report itself, nor discuss the implications of it being utilised to advance a particular political agenda. If, as the post suggests, ECEC advocates should ensure that their advocacy positions are well-informed in economic terms, ECA should be lining up beside me to dispute the PwC report purely on the basis it does not actually provide any accurate modelling by failing to take into account the Activity Test or the subsidy cap.

Goodstart’s response did not either. No-one, at any point, has ever challenged me on this. The fact that people seem to be either offended or unhappy that I have pointed this out is interesting, but irrelevant. I am more than happy to be challenged by facts, not hurt feelings.

Separate to the response to the report, ECA’s post raises a number of concerns regarding how they view ECEC advocacy – and ECEC advocates. The post states that advocates are “uncomfortable” with making arguments based on economic investment, and are “letting children down” by not utilising these arguments effectively.

I in no way, shape or form represent advocates in the ECEC sector, but for my part I respectfully disagree with Ms Page on this point, and actually find that perspective somewhat insulting. Again, only speaking for myself, but I have been making arguments based on the necessity for early investment for many years. Here, here and here, just to list a few. ECEC advocates have actually been doing this for quite a while. Of course the economic arguments can be made, but should always be made in subservience to the child-centred arguments which position early childhood education as a birthright, regardless of their socio-economic status.

But there is a limit. I will not, and cannot, support in any way a proposed reform package that at its heart shackles together a child’s right to participate in ECEC with the economic contribution of their family. That is what this package does, and no amount of amendments, or tinkering or minor changes will change that unassailable fact. Recent Senate Estimates put some hard numbers on the number of families that will be adversely affected by the Government’s proposed changes. 37,000 families will have their access to ECEC either slashed or eliminated as they are deemed to not contribute enough to the Australian economy. This week, SNAICC released a report that demonstrates Indigenous children will have the most to lose from this package, mere weeks after this year’s Closing the Gap report revealed that Australia had failed to meet the targets for early childhood education.

There seems to be a view that the because the package is on the table, it should not be blocked outright but amended. I will contend that is not advocacy in the best interests of children, and is patently not the only option given the current make-up of the Senate. Poor policy has routinely been knocked back by this Senate. So should the Jobs for Families package. Organisational submissions to the Senate Inquiry suggest I am far from alone in this view.

I can’t imagine the communities where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ECEC services will close as a result of this package will be swayed by the argument that it’s better overall for the economy.

Of course making economic arguments is important for advocates. But it should never be undertaken by separating out children from the equation. Yes, it might be easier to just argue from an economic angle. But no-one should get into the advocacy business thinking it’s going to be easy.

I’m genuinely puzzled by the defensive responses from Goodstart, and now ECA, by the simple stating of my position on these issues. Positions that are, again, hardly limited to myself. Advocacy is a big tent, or should be. Organisations can take whatever position they want on legislation, but they should be able to have the discussion with others in the sector on other approaches – particularly if they are representing the sector.

Interestingly enough, a mere two weeks before the economic article post was published, ECA actually published a great piece on the ethical obligation and responsibility to advocate in the sector. Strangely, it doesn’t actually mention the need to articulate the importance of economic investment. Given the spirited defence of the importance of economic arguments in “proper advocacy” in the most recent piece, it’s odd that it wasn’t brought up in the earlier post.

Some great points that are in that earlier piece though:

“The Code of Ethics also provides a responsibility to engage in public advocacy – to ‘utilise knowledge and research to advocate for universal access to a range of high-quality early childhood programs for all children’.”

That’s universal access, not access for some based on their parent’s roster.

I, and others, feel that responsibility to advocate for universal access to a range of high-quality early childhood programs for all children. I will continue to do so.

I can only speak for myself, but that means I will continue to vehemently oppose the Government’s proposed reforms. I would urge all other advocates to do the same. In fact I would go so far as to say that I am very “uncomfortable” which large ECEC organisations offering support to this package, and those that do are “letting children down”.

Early childhood education and Indigenous Australia: what is our responsibility?

You may have missed it in the general political chaos of the last couple of weeks, but a new Government report has revealed some truly alarming statistics regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

According to the Report on Government Services, 14 991 Indigenous children are currently in out-of-home care. This represents almost 35 per cent of children in the out-of-home care system, despite the fact that Indigenous children only represent around 4 per cent of the total number of Australian children.

Over-representation of Indigenous children in both the out-of-home care system and the juvenile detention system (where, according to ARACY, Indigenous children are also 10 times more likely to be represented) appears to now be embedded in Australian society. As SNAICC points out, these statistics have increased by 65 per cent since Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, which was meant to mark a turning point in reconciliation within our country.

The annual Closing the Gap Report released this week has confirmed that work towards a number of targets, including early childhood education enrolments, is not progressing.

Leadership is sorely missing from this issue in Parliament. Nearly 40 years after Gough Whitlam travelled to Wave Hill Station and symbolically handed the land back to Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people, it is difficult to see any of our current crop of leaders as capable of such leadership.

At first glance it may seem that those of us who work in early education and care cannot do anything about this. Surely this is a political issue. Why do we have to do anything? What can we do?

We can start with the National Quality Framework. This large-scale reform of the sector was based on a key foundational document, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians which, as quoted in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), ‘commits to improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and strengthening early childhood education’. The EYLF also directly states that ‘early childhood education (with educators who are culturally competent) has a critical role to play’ in achieving this goal.

We know that addressing structural disadvantage and vulnerability must start in the early years. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has conducted a significant amount of research demonstrating the necessity of early childhood being a critical part of the Closing the Gap strategy.

Quality early learning experiences can support all children to get the best start in life. Given Australia’s past and our responsibility to Indigenous Australians, there needs to be a significant and sustained focus on embedding Indigenous perspectives in early childhood education and care—first with educators, and through them young children and families.

We can draw a direct line between our work as professionals in the early education sector and the potential for improved outcomes for young Indigenous children. A quality start to primary and secondary school could be the difference for any number of children and their families.

Addressing disadvantage and vulnerability is our responsibility because it is happening on our watch.

Nelson Mandela once said that ‘there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Australia has a long way to go in closing the gap for Indigenous children. As professionals, we should not have to be forced to take ownership or responsibility for this issue—we should embrace the opportunity to influence change with both arms.

Regardless of your own background, your own community, your own cultural competence—what will you do to be part of the solution?

I state clearly here that I do not and would not presume to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon male and as such am representative of many of the past and continuing struggles that face the First Australians on this land that was, is and shall always be Aboriginal Land.

For the perspectives of Indigenous people regarding these issues, I recommend visiting the websites of SNAICC and Reconciliation Australia, as well as the specific support of your local Indigenous Professional Support Unit.

This article was originally posted on Early Childhood Australia’s blog The Spoke.

The biggest issue facing the sector

I was fortunate enough to attend the 2014 Early Childhood Australia Conference in Melbourne this year, and I was amazed by the quality of the presentations from truly inspirational speakers.

But the session that is still rattling around in my brain is not the one I was expecting. It was a working session with a senior representative of the Department of Education. We were invited to put forward what we thought were the biggest issues facing the early childhood (EC) sector.

Not a simple question! In 2014 alone there have been at least four separate inquiries into various aspects of Australia’s EC sector (Productivity Commission, NQF Review, two Senate inquiries). All of these have reflected the complicated work we do and the challenging regulatory frameworks we do it in.

So I was a little surprised when one issue quickly and decisively trumped all the others.

Documentation.

At least two-thirds of the questions raised were around documentation requirements. How much do we need to do? Per child, per day? Should we reference every learning outcome in an observation? How many observations?

I have to be honest – this really disappointed me. This was a rare and valuable opportunity for practitioners and professionals to directly address a senior figure in the sector, with the capacity to make far-reaching decisions affecting our works. She was asking us to represent all of those who do our work, and let the Department know what we think the most pressing issue facing us right now is.

She left that room thinking it was documentation.

Really? With every challenge and frustration we face, how many observations we have to do a month is the biggest single thing affecting our work?

I find this difficult to believe, given the challenges I observe in my work. Trying to recruit and retain qualified early childhood teachers and educators. Supporting the inclusion of children with disabilities. Ethically and respectfully incorporating Indigenous perspectives in our work with young children. Having to balance operational costs with the inclusion of vulnerable children.

I can’t help but think that we might have made even a tiny amount of progress on some of those tricky issues if they had been the focus of discussions.

Documentation is a challenging issue for services, and does require a lot of thought and reflection.

But we are also nearly 3 years into the new National Quality Framework. Support for services to work on their documentation is everywhere, from ECA’s website to your local Professional Support Coordinator.

In forums I attend, documentation is still the key issue that is raised. Imagine how much progress we might be making on some of the issues I listed above if we were constantly and consistently raising them.

That really would make a difference in the lives of Australia’s children.

This article was originally posted on Early Childhood Australia’s blog The Spoke.

ECA release pre-Budget submission

Early Childhood Australia have publicly released their pre-Budget submission to the Federal Government for the 2014/2015 Budget.

There is good evidence to suggest that early intervention and prevention programs in the areas of
maternal, child and family health; early childhood education and care; and family support programs
can improve outcomes for children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

ECA makes this submission to the 2014–15 Budget in the context of the Productivity Commission’s
ongoing Inquiry into Child Care and Early Childhood Learning. ECA has welcomed this root and
branch review of the system. It will enable a thorough look at how the system can best meet
Australia’s needs into the future and there are a number of areas that genuinely need reform.

ECA’s submission features 2 priorities 9 recommendations to the Government as they consider their Budget for the upcoming financial year.

Overall, it is fantastic to see ECA advocating strongly for the full implementation of the National Quality Framework in the face of a concerted campaign by private operators (which ECA also represent) to see it rolled back.

The submission also focuses strongly on the needs of those children and families experiencing the greatest disadvantage and vulnerabilities.

ECA also manages the vital National Quality Standard Professional Learning Program, which has had its funding removed by the Federal Government. It’s a critical resource for the sector at a time when professional standards must rise, so I sincerely hope that ECA and the sector’s advocacy on this sees the program fully restored.