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Goodbye, and thank you

I’m pondering a lengthier post on the challenges to ECEC advocacy some point the line that will no doubt refer heavily to the work she has done over the past 6 years or so, but for now I just want to briefly (and sadly) note that Community Child-Care Co-operative announced today that their CEO Leanne Gibbs will be leaving the role in June.

Others that know Leanne far better than I will be in a better position to praise her work in that role. I’m literally writing this about 20 minutes after learning of the news, so for now I want to say a personal thank you to her for a couple of things.

Firstly, Leanne has on a number of occasions taken a risk in working with me in some speaking and writing capacities. Someone once said to me that I “don’t work well with others”, and while that is certainly true for many in the sector, I do want to work with organisations like CCCC that put children squarely at the centre of their work – even with the political risks that can follow. This is obviously a fairly self-interested thank you, but I will say it anyway!

Secondly, Leanne has guided CCCC through a challenging time for the sector. Large-scale reforms like the NQF, endless inquiries and Governments at a State and Federal hostile to any advocacy could have seen CCCC become neutered or soft-touch. Instead, their advocacy has become crystal clear and part of the national conversation. Check out their submission to the Productivity Commission as a fantastic example of accessible advocacy that tackles a wide range of complicated issues. CCCC has been the standard-bearer for greater investment in NSW preschools for what seems like forever, despite the potential impact on their relationship with the NSW Government.

Leanne leaves CCCC as the most courageous and consistently child-focused advocacy organisation in Australia. I’ll have to steal a favoured compliment from a long-term colleague of mine here, which I leave as the highest tribute I can offer:

Australia’s children thank you.

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Blog Policy

Government announce inquiry into evidence base for early childhood and school

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.

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Blog Policy

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.

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Advocacy Blog

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”.

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Advocacy Blog Policy

Indigenous children’s access to ECE slashed by Government reform package

New report reveals impact of Government’s reform package on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services

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A report from Deloitte Access Economics for SNAICC released today revealed the concerning impact of the Federal Government’s “Jobs for Families” package for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families.

From ABC News Online:

The Deloitte research shows 40 per cent of families using the BBF services would receive fewer hours of subsidised care.

It also shows 54 per cent of families using BBF services would have higher out-of-pocket costs and the biggest impact would be felt by families earning less than $65,000.

Two-thirds of service providers would also receive less government funding.

Hilariously, the Federal Government has claimed the report is inaccurate and fails to take into account other elements of their reform package – despite the fact that the Government has consistently failed to reveal huge amounts of actual information the proposed reforms, both through the Regulatory Impact Statement process and in the proposed legislation currently before the Senate.

The Child Care Subsidy is only vaguely described, how it can be applied for and received is basically unknown, and how children and their families’ situations will be monitored on an ongoing basis is not described.

The economic benefits of the Jobs for Families package are dubious at best. The impact on children and families at-risk and experiencing vulnerability is crystal clear. The argument that this package is “OK with a few amendments” is becoming increasingly difficult to swallow.

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Blog Policy

A numbers game

Many have come out strongly against the Federal Government’s proposed reforms to early childhood education and care, primarily due to significant concerns on how the proposed Activity Test will affect the right of children to access early education.

It’s been a tricky fight for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones was the complete lack of data and numbers around the number of children and families likely to be affected.

We’re getting somewhere now, after Education Department deputy secretary Jackie Wilson appeared before Senate Estimates on Wednesday night.

Judith Ireland from Fairfax covered the numbers revealed in that appearance:

About 45,000 families will be worse off under the Coalition’s childcare reforms because they pay childcare fees that are higher than the upper limits of the government’s new subsidy rate.

A Senate committee also heard on Wednesday night that a further 37,000 families would be worse off because they did not work enough hours according to the new “activity test”.

This breakdown comes after the government published modelling late last month that showed overall, about 184,000 families would lose support in the new childcare package that starts in July 2017, while more than 815,000 will be better off.

Not insignificant numbers. It’s becoming indefensible for anyone with the interests of children of their families to advocate for this package – even with amendments – to be passed.

Even with the information revealed in Estimates, huge question marks still remain over the nature of the Government’s much-spruiked by un-detailed new safety net.

Hopefully we’ll learn more over the next few weeks.

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Advocacy Blog

Goodstart response to Saturday’s blog post

A departure from the norm for this blog, but after Saturday’s post on Goodstart Early Learning’s release of a commissioned report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) on the Government’s ECEC reform package, Goodstart contacted me via email. They have asked if the response can be posted on my site, which I am happy to do.

Goodstart’s response in full can be found at the end of this post. I encourage readers to read it, before returning back up here for my quick thoughts.

I actually have had the opportunity to read Goodstart’s submission to the Senate Inquiry, along with every other publicly accessible submission. As with the PwC report, it was not easy to find as (at the time of posting) it is not included on Goodstart’s media or publications page, but is linked to through this blog post.

Goodstart makes some good points (echoed by the rest of the sector) in both their submission and in their response to me below. It’s important to note that my post was not about their submission or surrounding documents though – it was about the specific report commissioned, how Goodstart used that report and how the Federal Government used that report.

Goodstart’s report, and subsequent media release, was quoted in Parliament. By the Prime Minister. To encourage the passing of this package by the Senate.

Goodstart’s submission to the Senate inquiry was not. This is why I posted on Saturday.

The key points that I raised in that post, which are not discussed in Goodstart’s response, are:

  1. Why did Goodstart commission the report at all?
  2. Why did the report not take into account the Activity Test and subsidy cap, both of which will have significant impacts on children, families and any potential effect on workforce participation?
  3. Why did Goodstart’s media efforts following on from the report entirely focus on workforce and economic outcomes, with no reference to the effect on children?

Given Goodstart’s position as Australia’s largest provider of early childhood education and care (or “childcare”, as it is repeatedly referred to across Goodstart’s website and public statements), these are questions that are worth raising and discussing.

It is disappointing that Goodstart believes that with amendments (which are described as “minor amendments” on their media page), this Bill should be passed. I disagree. Major amendments will not save this Bill. The Bill is poor policy. It is regressive in terms of positioning the sector as early education, and splits children into those deemed “worthy” of accessing education (by virtue of being in a “working family”) and those who are not.

Many in the sector more articulate than me agree.

I cannot change or influence Goodstart’s approach to advocacy – and as an organisation they are entitled to view the Government’s reform package in any way they see fit. But I will stand by my view that, in my personal opinion, Goodstart (as Australia’s largest ECEC provider) has an obligation to champion the voice of children and their right to access education regardless of the circumstances of their families. Not sometimes, but all the time. Not for some, but for all.

Dear Liam

I am emailing you regarding your blog post from February 6.

I am sorry you didn’t have the benefit of reading Goodstart’s detailed submission to the Senate Inquiry on the Government’s ‘Jobs for Families’ childcare package – or the media release we sent out explaining our position. Both are available here on our website along with a quick summary of our position about the strengths and weaknesses of the Government’s approach.

Goodstart Early Learning has made a strong commitment to advocacy on behalf of the 60,000 families whose children we care for across the nation. We’ve spent many months working hard to argue for more funding, better access and greater equity through the Productivity Commission process and direct to the Government since it announced its response to the Commission’s recommendations.

As our submissions, evidence to inquiries and media releases on the issue make clear, there’s no question that the vast majority of Australian working families will be better off if the Government injects more money into subsidies.

There’s also no question that the current draft legislation needs to be improved to do more for disadvantaged children [emphasis is Goodstart’s – Liam].

Goodstart lodged its submission to the Senate Committee on Monday February 4 and we issued the media release that same afternoon. Like many in the sector we believe the package needs amendment to ensure disadvantaged children receive at least two days of early learning each week – no matter what their parents do.

We don’t believe there is a conflict in lobbying the Government to do more for children from low income households while also welcoming changes which will make early learning more affordable for the majority of working households in Australia.

As you noted in your blog post, late last week Goodstart also released independent modelling from PwC which demonstrates the Government’s claims that the changes will be good for two-income families were well founded. Importantly there will be strong economic benefits for the nation when more women return to work as a result of early learning being more affordable.

We are urging the Senate to pass the bill, with amendments to ensure disadvantaged children receive at least 15 hours of early learning each week [emphasis is Goodstart’s – Liam].

Liam we hope you will be able to correct the record with your readership by posting this email or at the very least the links to our submission and media release.

Kind regards

Wendy George
Campaign Manager, Goodstart Early Learning

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Advocacy Blog

Last week, the sector may have lost a powerful voice for advocacy

I’ve banged on about advocacy on this blog for years now. It’s crucial if we’re going to make any changes to the early childhood education (ECE) system for the benefit of children and their families.

We’re a fragmented and disjointed sector. We don’t have a clear and simple advocacy campaign that we’re all rallying around. There are competing priorities, different perspectives, and those who are in this sector not for the principles of children’s rights but to make a lot of money.

Which is why the actions this week of Australia’s largest not-for-profit early childhood education organisations, Goodstart Early Learning, are so disappointing.

Some context. The Senate is currently considering the Federal Government’s imaginatively-titled “Jobs for Families” package which will, among other things, slash access to ECE for the children that most need it. The entire thrust of the package is to position the sector as entirely about workforce participation for the parents of a child. It is a regressive and damaging package that should be fought.

Last week submissions closed to a Senate Committee inquiry into the package, and I was heartened to see some excellent submissions from sector leaders. I very much recommend checking out the submissions of Community Child-Care Co-operative, SDN Children’s Services, UNSW’s Social Policy Research Centre and Northside Community Service (which, to be fair, is my employer!).

All of these submissions clearly and fearlessly articulate the very real and serious concerns inherent in the Government’s proposed reforms. The sector is rightly challenging them.

So I was… let’s be diplomatic and use the word “surprised” – to see the headline on this press release from Goodstart Early Learning:

“Childcare reforms will boost the economy: report shows”

I’m going to have to skate right by the offensive use of the word childcare there, and throughout the release, as there are far too many other issues to address.

The press release refers to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) commissioned by Goodstart to analyse the Government’s proposed ECE reforms to determine the likely benefit to the economy and workforce productivity.

I’m going to have to break the myriad problems with the report, Goodstart’s media release, the resultant media, and what it says about who should be the Australian ECE leader in advocacy into several parts. Stick with me.

 

The PwC report -why?

Let’s start with a fundamental question – why did Goodstart commission this report at all? Seriously – I have no idea why. The report states:

Goodstart Early Learning commissioned PwC in September 2015 to model the economic impacts of the proposed CCS (Child Care Subsidy).

Goodstart, according to their site, provide ECEC to over 70,000 children around Australia. To their credit, they are a not-for-profit consortium that took over from the collapse of ABC Learning. But why are they in the business of modelling economic impacts of proposed packages? Goodstart’s role, the same as every other ECEC provider, is to support the learning and wellbeing of children. I am not an Early Childhood Teacher to support Australia’s workforce participation KPIs. I’ll be blunt – I don’t care.

The only aspects of the Government’s reforms that should interest Goodstart are how they will affect children, or the educators who work with them. I’d love for an ECEC organisation to ask a large, reputable company like PwC to model how many children are likely to miss out on ECEC as a result of these reforms and their parents’ deemed “contribution” to the economy – and how many of them will be children at risk.

Goodstart employs over 13,000 educators. Have they also paid for modelling to see how many will have to be shifted to part-time or casual work if the Government’s proposed six-hour block funding goes ahead?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services under the current Budget Based Funding model will be forced to transition to the “mainstream” funding model. According to SNAICC, most won’t be able to do so. Where is the report on how many Indigenous children will now not be able to access ECEC?

 

The report itself is useless

Having read the report – which was not easy given that it is not publicised on Goodstart’s website at all, for no reason that I can see – it’s also clear that it’s out-of-date and does not look at parts of the reform package that will have the most impact on children.

This is from the last page of the report:

The activity test and subsidy cap aspects of the Child Care Subsidy have not been considered in this analysis. Adjustments to the proposed Child Care Subsidy that were announced in late 2015, including a lower subsidy level at higher income thresholds, were also not included in this analysis.

I actually can’t come up with a diplomatic way to say this. This is insanity. The activity test is a cornerstone of the Government’s reforms, and will have the most significant impact on children, particularly those most at-risk. For it not to be included in the analysis is incredible. Was PwC specifically asked to not include it? That would be very worrying.

The actual projections on enhanced workforce participation seem to be a combination of vague guesses and a wildly optimistic interpretation of the outcome of the planned reforms.

In a broad sense, the report does not take into account any of the changes made to the package in November 2015. So basically, the report was out-dated well before it was released.

 

How the report was used

The report was a gift to the Government.

The Government is fighting hard to get their reforms through, despite opposition from some players in the sector and peak welfare advocacy groups. This report, commissioned by Australia’s biggest player in ECEC, is a complete win for them. Indeed, it was referred to several times in Parliament last week, including by the Prime Minister:

So we welcome today’s independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It projects the equivalent of 20,000 full-time workers will join the workforce as a result of the government’s new childcare subsidy. I quote the Goodstart Early Learning CEO, Julia Davison, who commissioned the report. She said:

“The Jobs for Families childcare package will deliver a significant economic gain for our nation by making returning to work more attractive for parents.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, 4 February 2016

The report also did the rounds in the media, and it’s headline figures of adding “the equivalent of nearly 20,000 full time workers to the labour force and $3.1 billion to national GDP by 2020” was pretty much taken at face value.

Goodstart’s media release on the issue is shocking in its complete focus on the economic and workforce implications of this report, and complete disregard for how the reforms they’ve asked to be analysed will directly and adversely affect children – who are, apparently, central to everything Goodstart does.

 

What does this mean for advocacy?

Call me alarmist (you won’t be the first), but this is getting into dangerous territory. The commissioning of the report, and subsequent media release, looks like nothing more than a Government media strategy. It’s the Government’s job to sell the economic implications of this package. Good luck to them. For Goodstart to get into this on their behalf is bad for the sector, and – frankly – embarrassing for Goodstart.

Read the media release again. Pretend the Goodstart branding isn’t on there. After reading it, would you even know that the organisation that put this release out worked in ECEC?

I expect more from Goodstart, as Australia’s largest NFP ECEC organisation. They expect more of themselves – as they themselves state.

The real kicker for me is this paragraph, the only time children even get a mention.

Improving access to affordable quality childcare supports increased workforce participation not just in the short term, but in the long term because more children starting school ready to learn will mean more Australians entering the workforce ready to work.

So apparently the endgame here is more happily productive workforce participation units. Vale, the wonder of childhood. Time to get ready to work.

 

This has been a long and rambling piece, but it’s important. The Government’s proposed reform package are disastrous for children and their families. I am not alone in thinking that. For one of the biggest players to become Government spokespeople on this issue is an incredible abdication of responsibility.

I can only guess at Goodstart’s motives here. Genuine interest in the economic implications? If so, that’s ridiculous. A desire to be “on good terms” with the Turnbull government, to be “inside the tent” as it were?

The Government has spokespeople. It has economic modelling. You know what Australian ECEC desperately needs but doesn’t have? More powerful, irrefutable voices of advocacy which will stand up to poor policy on behalf of children.

It seems like over the last week, Goodstart has vacated the field. What a shame.

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Australian early childhood education is under threat – and we may not even know it

“And so people in the sector need to recognise and, if need be, adjust their business models to support those families who are looking to provide for their children for six hours a day or four hours a day over three days.”

– Senator Simon Birmingham

Advocacy gets tricky in the details. Fighting the good fight for ideals and foundational rights is not easy, but it’s clear. Calling out and ending the scourge of domestic violence. Calling for the release of children from immigration detention. Calling for a fair, equitable and funded early education and care sector.

There are clear, consistent and compelling cases that can – and are – being made on these important causes. But there comes a time when you need to move beyond the headline, get people round a table and hammer out a plan.

Tackling domestic violence will take generations of work in law, government, our schools and our homes. It will require challenging the very forces of society that encourage men to desire and exercise control over women.

Ending Australia’s offshore detention program, and freeing children from their abject existences within it, seems less and less likely as global events and our own inward focus hardens our attitudes. Even changing the Government will not end this.

As for early education – talk about getting lost in the details.

I’ve devoted a fair chunk of my professional career in this sector to understanding, exploring and arguing with people on Twitter about the ins and outs of Australian early childhood policy. There are any number of people more intelligent, articulate and credible in this space – but I’m not exactly a newbie here either. But, confession time, I find the system inordinately complex, challenging and migraine-inducing. On a good day.

Australia’s legislative, regulatory and political framework for Birth-5 education is a labyrinthine mess of funding streams, Federal/State & Territory overlaps, a system deliberately designed to foster profit-based competition, local government planning issues and an undervalued and underpaid workforce. They’re just the problems I could think of while writing this paragraph.

The Productivity Commission Inquiry was designed – at least in part – to identify, and provide solutions for, these endless entanglements. Its success in this area is minimal at best, and given that the current Government has had wildly varied responses to its final report depending on A) who was the current Minister at the team (just a reminder, we’re up to 3 now since the last election) and B) which Department has responsibility for the sector (2 so far, 3 if you count going back and forth from Education). It’s telling that the new Minister, Simon Birmingham, has barely referred to the Commission at all since his elevation to the role of Education Minister.

Advocating for a fair and equitable early education system is easy – right up until the point you have to get into the details. And it’s in the details that something very concerning is happening – and I’m not convinced the sector is ready for it.

Senator Birmingham has recently floated the idea that ECEC services should charge by the hour. An innocuous suggestion by itself – most families don’t use a service for its entire hours of operation each day. But, taken alongside a number of other statements and policy directions of the last 6-12 months, it’s now clear that Australia’s early education system is facing an existential threat.

Generalising massively here (which we have to because, again, the details make my head hurt), we can see the Birth-5 education advocacy push within Australia (and even internationally to greater or lesser extents) as moving along a continuum from formalised babysitting towards recognition as part of the formal education system. It’s a very simplified version, but we can generally agree that we’re moving towards a vision of being viewed in the same framework as primary, secondary and tertiary education – funded and available to all.

The National Quality Framework (NQF) was a significant milestone on this journey. It was agreed to by both Coalition and Labor State and Territory Governments, and despite some tough talk has been continued under the Coalition Federal Government. I’m a vigorous defender of the NQF – and its now clear that the Government know it’s here to stay. Which makes their current policy moves dangerous.

They’re not going to get rid of the NQF. They’re going to make it meaningless.

Proposed changes, currently before the Senate, will see the current work/study activity test – essentially how much you contribute to the economy before your children are deemed worth of accessing an ECEC services – will become tighter locking out already marginalised children and families.

The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care estimates at least half the indigenous families now using childcare would fail the work and study “activity test’’.

– Natasha Bita, The Australian

This erosion of access was the first major push-back. The current proposal to expect services to charge by the hour will push us back another step – except this one will be over a cliff.

The Government’s moves, taken as part of a wider push, will see the sector slide back along the continuum. Rather than heading towards integration with the education system, Birth-5 education will become a service for parents like a trip to Monkey Mania. In fact, given the administrative nightmare hourly charging within the CCMS system will cause the sector, we may as well hand over to private indoor playgrounds. At least their system is set up for it.

“After all, nobody expects a three or four year old to engage in 10 to 12 hours of centre-based learning per day. These children will be much better served via access to two or three shorter educational sessions per week.”

– Senator Simon Birmingham

I can understand families being seduced by this idea – particularly given that Australia’s Birth-5 system is the most expensive in the OECD. But Early Childhood Australia have legitimate analysis that hourly billing will actually end up being more expensive in the long run.

Regardless, I don’t actually believe that this argument is about the cost of ECEC. Despite a significant international shift in the last 5-10 years towards recognising and beginning to properly fund this area, the current Government just does not fundamentally accept the need for early education (with the exception of Preschool). Despite the clear evidence on return for investment, Australia does not appear ready to take this leap away from a workforce participation mindset towards a focus on society as a whole. The evidence is becoming overwhelming – just as with primary and secondary education, everyone benefits whether you personally have children in the system or not.

It’s worth discussing primary and secondary education within the context of this (now extremely long) look at advocacy and details. The Gonski campaign was a fantastic example of education-based advocacy because it was clear, and actually managed to overcome a lot of the problem of minute detail. The Australian community at large could accept the details of the problem – and solution – because the argument about the right to accessing school is done and dusted.

The reason Birth-5 advocacy doesn’t have a “Gonski”-style campaign is the right to access argument is still being waged. We’re still in the weeds of even getting the community to accept this needs to be funded at all, let alone how.

The Government’s current approach reflects this – and therefore the “solutions” being proposed are a staggering case of missing the point entirely.

Senator Birmingham is not wrong to point out that families may be paying a lot for hours they are not using. But this isn’t the point – the point is they’re paying a lot for ECEC full stop. Forcing services to upend their entire approach misses the point that the system needs to be structured and funded to support the attendance of all children, particularly those experiencing vulnerability.

Senator Birmingham is not necessarily wrong to raise the issue of children attending 10-12 hours of formal learning a day. However, this firstly exposes a rather simplistic and inaccurate view of what is happening in ECEC services, and secondly his proposed solution is again entirely the wrong approach. If this is his concern, regulate services to provide shorter permanent hours of operation. Instead of opening to floodgates to Paid Parking Meter Childcare, let’s do 8.30 – 3.30. Heaven forbid the business community should have to be flexible to meet the education needs of children.

The move towards a fair and equitable Birth-5 education system is under threat, and the details are the weapons. Small but significant policy changes that undermine the gains of the last decade. I’m worried that the sector isn’t ready for this, and that private operators in the space may actually seize on the proposed system.

We need to be aware, and we need to force ourselves to keep up with the details. We may end up buried under them.

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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.