Universal ECEC is not “Boys Vs. Girls”

An interesting article from Lucy Powell in The Guardian UK on the failure of the UK Government to invest in their childcare sector. It makes some good points, particularly the evidence that the huge investment required to truly have universal access for all children would be of long-term benefit to the country.

It’s time for government to stop tinkering and take childcare seriously. We see business case after business case for boys’ toys like planes and trains – high-speed rail and airport expansion. Government should develop the case for childcare as a key economic driver to get women – and it is still mainly women – back into work and earning their full potential to benefit not only families but also the country.

The case for free universal childcare should be seriously explored. The IPPR has shown that universal childcare – 25 hours of free childcare for children from one to four – would pay a return to the Exchequer of £20,050 over four years in terms of tax revenue minus the cost of childcare for every woman who returns to work full time after a year of maternity leave. Childcare investment would not only get our economy moving, it would also help the development of young children and begin to level the playing field between poorer children and their peers when they start school.

Powell does unfortunately couch the article primarily in terms of economic outcomes – the needs of children are only lightly touched on. I also question the reducing of traditional infrastructure investment as “boy’s toys” – quality infrastructure is also vital in lifting families out of vulnerable circumstances.

It serves no-one to reduce the argument to “Boys Vs. Girls”, or infrastructure vs. childcare. Investment is needed in both, and universal access to early education and care would significantly redress the gender imbalances in families that Powell rightly points out still exists.


Survey: Families prioritise spending on ECEC over PPL

Goodstart Early Learning has released the results of a survey conducted throughout June that sought opinions from Australian families on the early childhood education and care sector.

Goodstart chief executive Julia Davison said paid parental leave was not the main driver when it came to women’s participation in work. “Access to affordable quality childcare needed to be the second big leg of work and family policy alongside paid parental leave,” Ms Davison said.

“International research cited in a recent report by the Grattan Institute suggests that government support for childcare has about double the impact on female workforce participation as spending on paid parental leave. We would like to see the next government prioritising new investment into early learning and childcare so that parents do not end up wearing the additional cost of the quality reforms.”

Ms Davison said new investment should be an additional term of reference for the Coalition’s proposed Productivity Commission review of the sector. “Our government’s education spending priorities of inadequate investment in children’s early years do not reflect the priorities of Australian families and run counter to international best practice and research,” she said.


Education and care Vs. economic imperatives


Interesting piece from Yvonne Haigh up at The Conversation that explores the tension between a “caring” society and the political desire to be seen as “strong” on the economy. She touches on ECEC policies:

The Labor government introduced the National Quality Framework (2012) to ensure quality of educative and care services and it tinkered with rebates and family benefits to the tune of A$7,500 rebate for many families per child. But this does not cover the total costs for children attending day-long or out-of-school child care.

The Coalition has proposed a Productivity Commission inquiry into child care: one that takes into account costs, rebates and subsidies but does not target funding for child care centres.

As proposed solutions, these positions reinforce the tension between policies that “care” and enhancing the economic bottom line. The Coalition’s paid parental leave policy has been criticised for reinforcing inequality and discrimination against women; the Labor Party’s approach has been criticised for excluding superannuation. In both positions, the importance of care is lost in the rhetoric that focuses on time periods and amounts of financial assistance.

The article is worth a read, and also touches on disability, aged care and family policy.


Eva Cox: Fund ECEC directly

Long-time champion for early childhood education and care has written in Women’s Agenda today with her practical approaches to “fixing” the childcare crisis. Well-worth a read.

The Government needs to completely re-jig the funding system so it set up conditions and costs, as happens with nursing homes. They need to control and fund services that are in appropriate locations, places for different age groups and locally appropriate flexible hours of operating. This should also include some levels of fee control, to allow break even or profit levels but not excessive returns. The market model has shown it cannot meet diverse consumer needs under the current system so this industry should be deemed a market failure in need of more government intervention.

My only point of disagreement with Eva would be that her plan doesn’t go far enough. The Early Years needs to be fully integrated in to the education system, entirely free-to-access and entirely funded by Government.


Greens plan to lower childcare fees

The Australian Greens are today releasing their plan to combine the Child Care Benefit (CCB) and Child Care Rebate (CCR) payments and increase the amount paid to some families. The plan is costed at $2.3 billion over 4 years.

Some families, however, would get little new assistance, while others stand to gain more because the system would be skewed to help those who need it most.

Greens childcare spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said there was a clear need to streamline funding mechanisms to provide assistance to more parents who need it and promote higher standards of care.

”The crisis in childcare means fees are skyrocketing and availability is dropping, especially in high-need areas,” she said.

”If Australian children are going to be cared for in centres with sufficient numbers of qualified staff, the government must commit to increasing support to the sector.

”Without increased funding to childcare, families won’t be able to have the high-quality, affordable, flexible care that they need.”

Source: The Age

Streamlining the assistance payments makes sense, but it’s disappointing to see yet another policy announcement from a major party that fails to address the structural problems facing the sector.

For a great look at how the sector needs structural reform, check out this great story from ABC Radio National.

UPDATE: Green’s policy detail now up here.


Election 2013 – ECEC

We’re now into week three of the 2013 Election campaign. Early childhood education and care issues have bubbled into  few announcements and press releases, but as usual has not been a key priority for any of the major parties.

Labor has committed to continuing the work of the National Quality Framework reforms, but has not announced any measures to support the sector to meet the unrealistic qualification requirements due to commence in 2014. Labor will also continue to support the pay equity case at Fair Work Australia, and money from the Early Years Quality Fund has already begun to roll out.

The Coalition will instigate a Productivity Commission into childcare affordability. Beyond that, no idea.

The Greens have announced $200 million “expanding and upgrading existing community childcare facilities”. The Greens have also committed to the NQF.

All in all, a disappointment. Politically, we are miles and miles away from where we should be as a sector.

At the moment I’m reading “Children’s Chances: How Countries Can Move from Surviving to Thriving” by Jody Heymann. It’s a great, recently-published and up-to-date analysis of data from almost every country in the world. It looks at a variety of metrics on children’s chances to survive and thrive, and has a couple of great chapters on education.

It highlights to importance of early childhood education on long-term outcomes for children. In Australia, the policy debate is still stubbornly framed around waiting lists, fees and council zoning issues.

As I have been saying despairingly to my colleagues over the last few weeks, the real driver of policies for children in this country is workplace flexibility. Ponder that and become depressed.

Until we can get the conversation back to children, and the potential benefits of investment on the early years, nothing is going to change.


2014 qualification requirements cannot be met without support

Over a million children are now in some kind of formal education and care, such as long day care, family day care or school-age care. But many of the organisations that provide these programs have a history of uneven and in some cases non-existent quality control. This was the case until the introduction of the Federal Government’s National Quality Framework (NQF) in January 2012.

The NQF aimed to unify disparate state and territory regulation and law. It also introduced a new framework for supporting children’s learning and wellbeing (the Early Years Learning Framework), increasing educator-to-child ratios and set up a new agency to assess and rate children’s education and care services.

Another key change (due to be phased in from the beginning of 2014) is the requirement for every educator to have a minimum qualification of a Certificate III in Children’s Services. In most cases, 50 per cent of all educators will be required to have at least a Diploma of Children’s Services.

All long day care centres will also be required to employ at least one university-qualified early childhood teacher. Larger centres will need more.

The evidence is clear that improving the qualification levels of early childhood educators significantly improves educational outcomes for children. It can also improve children’s likely performance in primary and secondary school.

I strongly support the requirement that anyone working towards the education of young children has a qualification. This represents a key shift in our professional work, and there is is no reasonable argument against it.

We wouldn’t trust anybody without a qualification to repair our drains, but up until now it has been appropriate for unqualified people to educate our youngest children.

Those who do argue against these requirements are either concerned about their profit margins (such as the Australian Childcare Alliance), or believe that childcare is essentially babysitting and can be handled by anyone with a police check and a caring nature.

But the Government has been slow to realise that matching philosophy with practice is going to be challenging.

The education and care sector has struggled for decades to attract qualified educators, particularly at the diploma level. High expectations and workloads, shift-style employment and laughable wages have not exactly had people stampeding to their local TAFE.

To put it into perspective, the wage rise from a Certificate III to a Diploma is in most cases only around $2 an hour. A diploma-trained educator is expected to manage a room, including other staff members; plan for the individual learning of every child attending in that room; be responsible for opening and closing the centre at some times; and dozens of other key responsibilities — two years of study for $2 extra an hour.

The situation with early childhood teachers is even more dire. A teacher who chooses to work in the Long Day Care sector is literally choosing to forgo around $20,000 in salary compared to their counterparts in the preschool system. They also have less time for documentation and planning, far less annual leave and will also most likely have extra responsibilities around mentoring their colleagues.

As with many other aspects of the NQF, The federal government seems determined to wilfully ignore the practical implementation issues.

Put simply there is no chance at all that the early childhood education sector will be able to meet the NQF qualification requirements by January 2014.

Unfortunately, the Government’s Early Childhood Workforce Strategy fails to provide any meaningful support for these requirements beyond limited funding for qualification scholarships and vague statements about supporting the professionalism of the sector.

Without immediate intervention in areas such as wages, professionalism and career pathways it is clear that these qualification requirements will be completely unreachable. Even that level of intervention right now would not be able to fix this issue by next year.

This will be unlikely to come from a Coalition government intent on either rolling back or halting the NQS reforms.

The Labor Government has made some small steps towards supporting educators, but as I have written before this has raised its own issues of equity. The only long-term solution to attracting, retaining and supporting early childhood educators and teachers — and through them, children — is to fundamentally change how we fund and value their work. This will require a national conversation around early education that would rival the Gonski debate, it needs to happen soon.

Ireland, which utilises a similar mix of private and not-for-profit operators, is currently reeling from media reports of serious misconduct in their education and care sector. Many have made the link between these incidents and an underpaid and undervalued workforce.

Without a fundamental review of how we support our early education sector, it is inevitable that similar issues will emerge here in Australia.

My only hope is that this is the start of the national discussion about the need for highly qualified teachers and educators to work with our youngest children, and the benefits to society as a whole that will flow from that work.

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website.


Sloan’s bizarre rant exposes broader conservative disdain for ECEC

What began as a short, strange and fairly callous blog post by Judith Sloan on “dim-witted” educators from “second-rate universities” has reached national attention thanks to the author’s appearance on ABC’s Q&A.

It hardly seems worth going into Sloan’s lack of apology, or indeed evidence for her assertion. The point of the article, assuming it had one, was surely to generate publicity for Sloan herself – wholly successfully.

I posted a fairly light-hearted and “snarky” response to the blog on Friday night, which was written less out of frustration with her view of my work than by confusion as to the frankly bizarre content.

But it’s worth taking a slightly more serious look at her published thoughts, as they showcase the fairly common conservative or right-wing perspective on early childhood education.

Sloan’s inclusion of the term “Stalinist straight jacket” is telling. The notion of universal access early childhood education (ECE) 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 entry).

Anything outside of that, particularly when it is run or funded by Government, is a left-wing form of social engineering, designed to produce Little Leftists. Coincidentally, the “second-rate Universities” Sloan casually mentions are also often accused of being Socialist-factories.

Now the view that children are better off with a loving Mother and Father (and more usually the Mother) is a deceptively simple one, and any arguments for and against are usually run with high emotions on both sides.

Proponents of universal access to ECE argue that it provides a level playing field for all children, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. These two viewpoints represent the nerve that Sloan hit on (with no regard to subtlety).

Those who argue, like myself, for universal access to high-quality ECE programs with highly qualified teachers and educators are usually hit back with the same arguments.

“So you’re saying that you can only be a good parent if you have a degree?” “So you’re saying if I don’t send my child to childcare I’m making them stupid?”.

To be clear, as I so often have to be, I am certainly not saying either of those things. Do I believe that high-quality ECE can be of benefit in the long-term to children? Yes.

But I never attended childcare when I was a young child. I still did well in school, have a University degree (admittedly not from one that would meet with Judith Sloan’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.

However, I was extremely fortunate to have two well-educated, stable and loving parents with no mental health issues or disabilities. I was given every chance to be successful.

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.

Such a system would mean that any child could even have the opportunity to attend a first-rate, Judith Sloane-approved University!

Individually-focused learning through fun and play, targeted work on social skills and developing a love of learning can be of immeasurable benefit to young children. These are the focuses of the “Stalinist” National Quality Framework (NQF) for Early Childhood Education and Care.

The main document we use to support children’s learning, the Early Years Learning Framework, actually encourages children’s learning to be unique, individual and contextual to each child and their community. It asks educators to consider diverse perspectives when supporting children’s learning.

About as far away you can get from teaching every child to think and act the same. It almost makes me wonder whether Sloan bothered to check it out all.

The NQF is also there to ensure children’s health and safety – surely a reasonable ask when you consider that the latest figures show that over a million children are now in some form of ECE program.

Ireland’s loose system of regulation and minimal oversight has resulted in terrible outcomes for children, and is rightly coming under increased scrutiny.

Considering that we have a similar system of lowly-paid, overworked and as evidenced so clearly by Sloan also a disrespected workforce of educators and teachers, tight regulatory controls are an absolute necessity to ensure children are safe.

ECE is not about replacing parents. It’s about recognising that supporting young children to reach their potential can have significant benefits to society as a whole, including lifting families out of generational disadvantage.

These arguments will never convince conservatives like Sloan, who instinctually see any Government work with children as the worst form of socialism.

But for people like myself, dim-witted or not, our work with children is vitally important. All children deserve the best possible start in life, and I will continue to advocate for the work do.

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website.