Will the ghost of the EYQF continue to haunt the Government?

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The Coalition Government has found much to fault the previous Labor Government for, not least in its handling of early childhood education and care.

They’ve managed a tepid and limp hand clap for the creation and implementation of the National Quality Framework, which provides a national minimum standard for this work for the very first time.

Services are however, apparently “drowning in red tape” and quaking in fear from the “dead hand of government regulation”. The way the Coalition tells it, the last six years in ECEC have basically been a horror movie that the public has at last been able to walk out on.

Labor, those socialist fiends, have apparently just been throwing money at problems plaguing the sector – which presumably means that services are drowning in both red tape and money. A weird way to go.

But it appears that nothing has made the now grown-up and serious Government more disappointed than the handling of the Early Years Quality Fund.

“It was unfair,” they cried. “It was inequitable!” they wailed. “It was a lot of money we’d rather not spend on educators!” they murmured quietly on their way back to their offices.

Now, to be fair, it was unfair and it was inequitable. Please see previous blog rants for anything more on that.

But it placed the Government in the tricky position of trying to tight-walk between their burning desire to erase the last six years of history from the books, and the somewhat uncomfortable image of ripping away a small pay increase from people who work with young children.

To address this fairness and inequity, the Government has instead redirected the $300 million fund to “professional development” to the entire sector.

Well, $300 million minus the amount that had already been contracted out to organisations who, when politely asked by politicians on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (plus entitlements and apparently any large bookshelves they feel they might need) to return the money they were going to give to some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia, shocking said “No”.

According to the Department of Education, money should be rolling out to spend on professional development pretty soon. There is not a lot of information available on requirements, processes or obligations on services concerning the money.

But a more basic question has possibly not been asked – can the Government even do what they are proposing to do?

Let’s have a look at what we know.

The EYQF was legislated – it passed the House of Representatives and the Senate and became law. This means the money allocated for it can only be used for the prescribed, legislated purpose – i.e. professional wages.

From an interview on ABC’s 730 program in December:

SUSSAN LEY: …the special account Labor created only targeted long-day-care centres and only targeted a small proportion of those.

LEIGH SALES: But you’re in charge now. You’ve got the $300 million?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, we are stuck with their legislation and I don’t propose to send the legislation back to the Parliament.

The context of the conversation was that Leigh Sales had suggested to Sussan Ley if the issue was one of equity, why not just redistribute the funding to the entire sector. In this section, Sussan Ley has suggested that this was not possible due to the nature of the legislation.

The actual legislation itself – The Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013 – is available here and is pretty clear. It’s a riveting document with an almost spectacular lack of detail, but the key point is Section 7:

Purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account:

 

The purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account is to provide funding to approved centre based long day care services, to be used exclusively for paying remuneration, and other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.

Based on the evidence, it would appear to be legislatively impossible for the Assistant Minister to do as she is proposing, which is to redirect the funding legislated in this Bill.

Yet that appears to be exactly what is occurring, with apparently no objection from either the Opposition or United Voice.

The Bill does state that funds can be used for professional wages and “for other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.” This, however, hardly directly equates to professional development.

I have contacted the Assistant Minister with these questions and, based on my previous communications with her office, will receive a reply from her Department in 2-3 months.

But it perhaps needs to be asked of the other political players in ECEC why this rather substantial question on whether the Government can do what they are proposing to do has not been asked in Parliament.

Editors Note: Grateful thanks are given to Karl Hessian and Lisa Bryant for their research and assistance in this post. You can (and should) follow them both on Twitter by clicking on their names.

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EYQF conditional funding withdrawn

The new Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley, appears to have confirmed that conditional funding to increase wages under Labor’s Early Years Quality Fund will not be delivered.

The Education Department letter – obtained by The Australian – was sent on Friday, before the Abbott government’s month-long review reports on whether it can claw back $300 million allocated by Labor for pay rises in the industry, to compensate for its increased quality reforms.

Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley has set a deadline of the end of this month for the independent report.

“If your organisation has not yet implemented wage increases or otherwise has not yet fulfilled the conditions of the commonwealth’s offer of funding, that offer of funding is hereby revoked,” the letter says.

“Your organisation should do nothing further to commit itself to wage increases in the expectation that EYQF (Early Youth [sic] Quality Fund) funding will be made available for those wage increases.”

An inevitable result. I publicly attacked the EYQF when it was first announced, and have done so ever since. It was, and is, appalling public policy.

It is important, vitally important, to remember that advocacy for our sector should not be tied to a single campaign, a single announcement, or a single political party.

The EYQF was a political victory for United Voice, not for the sector.

It was a last-ditch and desperate attempt by the out-going Labor Government to attempt to wedge the Coalition on childcare issues.

If the then-Government had taken the issue of professional wages seriously, they had six years in Government to do something about it. A fund that would apply to 40% of the sector, announced at the eleventh hour, was a joke.

So now we have early childhood centres who have, in good faith, applied for funds under the EYQF who will miss out. Threats of a class action are just threats at this stage, and I can’t anticipate that anyone in the ECEC sector will have the funds to launch a long and expensive court case.

The ECEC sector should immediately dismiss the EYQF, and union members should strongly advocate that only a solution that applies to the entire sector, without strings, should ever be agreed to on their behalf again.

Roll on the Pay Equity case at Fair Work Australia.

Wage rises for educators now in doubt

The AFR is reporting that the incoming Abbott Government will be “redistributing” funds from the Early Years Quality Fund and a similar wage-increase fund in the aged care sector.

The Coalition may reallocate the childcare fund, which was set up to distribute any taxpayer-subsidised pay rises for childcare workers.

It is unclear whether any childcare workers had received the wage top-up already because the Labor government was late to release the eligibility rules for the two-year wages subsidy, which was due to end in 2015.

The Coalition’s childcare policy states it would honour any contracts already made and the remaining funds would be kept in the government’s childcare budget.

It is entirely unclear what this will actually mean. No money has started rolling out to services, although some contracts have been signed.

Some services had received “conditional approval”, and the incoming Government has not made clear whether they will be honoured.

UPDATE: Early Childhood Australia have released a statement calling on the incoming Government to honour the funding commitments in the EYQF. The statement is worth reading in full, and highlights the inequities and divisions inherent in the Fund.

In order to be eligible for the fund, organisations were required to have an Enterprise Agreement (EA) in place with their employees. The creation of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ did not sit well with a sector that takes its ethics and commitment to social equity very seriously.  There was considerable dissension and concern in the early childhood sector, as demonstrated by the submissions to the Senate Inquiry Submissions on the Legislation.

 

Where does Rudd’s return leave ECEC?

So, where does the rise of Rudd 2.0 leave early childhood education and care in Australia? As with most policy areas right now, we can only speculate (a very popular pastime right now).

The only certainty is that Peter Garrett has resigned his position as Minister for ECEC. Kate Ellis has not made any announcements, but has regularly voiced her clear support for Julia Gillard in the past. Unless she has changed her position to support for Kevin Rudd, it seems reasonable to assume that she may also choose to stand down in the near future.

Ellis and Garret have been the principal drivers of the National Quality Agenda within the Government, and their loss could signal that the NQA will be a low-priority during the period until the next election. The Department, DEEWR, will likely be sidelining any new work on it as well, awaiting the outcome of the election.

Rudd has voiced his general support for early learning before, particularly in the lead-up to the 2007 election where he shared his vision of “super-schools”, which incorporated early learning and K-12 in an integrated model.

This model was never really pursued, as economics and asylum seekers dominated the political agenda. It is completely unclear where Rudd would take ECEC if he is re-elected.

The most recent policy news for ECEC is the passing of the Early Years Quality Fund into law. This does not 100% guarantee that this will now be in place, but it does make it far more difficult to be halted.

This will be an interesting one – Rudd is no friend of the union movement, and may choose to back down in the face of a concerted push from the private operators to drop it.

Due to the fundamental inequity of the EYQF, as I have written before, this would be no terrible thing – but Rudd would need to swiftly announce a plan to replace it and address the wage inequity for educators.

Hopefully the commitment to a wage equity case at Fair Work Australia will remain – this seems very likely, as it is a relatively small commitment of many with almost no real detractors. It also allows Rudd to “kick the can down the road” for another couple of years.

The fundamental uncertainty is going to be around the continuation of the NQF reforms. The qualification requirements for 2014 are going to be a huge struggle for the sector, and it is entirely possible that the new-look Government may choose to put them on hold. Rudd will be looking to win over “working families”, and a commitment to push pack potential qualification-driven fee increases could be popular.

This will be a tricky one for the sector to manage. I am whole-heartedly committed to having people with the highest qualifications, but implementing them without structural reform to enable centres to actually recruit them seems ridiculous.

It may be better in the long run to push out the requirements – as long as a long-term plan to fundamentally reform the ECEC sector is also announced.

In the end, it seems likely that we won’t know what road ECEC will be taking until after the election, and potentially either a Coalition Government or a Rudd-led Labor one is installed. It is clear that Tony Abbott’s government would, if not completely roll back the reforms, freeze them as they are.

Labor will be stuck between the positives of the NQF reforms, and how generally unpopular they are with their link to fee increases. It is entirely possible they will adopt the same strategy.

UPDATED: Kate Ellis has confirmed that she will be remaining as a Government Minister until the election.

Why I cannot support the Early Years Quality Fund package

The Federal Government’s recent announcement of The Early Years Quality Fund (EYQF), a two-year, $300 million-funded program to lift the wages of early childhood educators, marked a significant turning point in the national discussion about those who work with young children.

Bill Shorten, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, succinctly put the government’s position:

“It is no longer enough, I think, for Australia to simply rely upon the emotional, the intellectual and indeed the physical efforts of Australia’s childcare workers and not adequately remunerate them.”
Shorten also raised the issue of gendered wage discrimination in the sector: “I don’t think anyone seriously believes in Australia that if all the childcare workers in Australia were men, the pay would be as low as it is.”

I have been fighting with my colleagues in the Big Steps campaign to raise the wages of early childhood educators for years. It was affirming to finally hear government ministers state unequivocally that we are underpaid, unsupported and disrespected. I have written and spoken publicly about the need for the community to recognise and support our work.

Despite all this, I believe that this funding package has the potential to disastrously undermine the Early Childhood Education ECEC sector and the campaign for professional wages.

The EYQF is a single pot of money, and will only last for two years from July 2013. To get a share, services and organisations must have an approved Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that factors in the wage increases, and will also need to evidence that they are actively working towards meeting the Federal Government’s new National Quality Standards for ECEC.

The wages increases range in scale from about $3 per hour for a Certificate III-qualified educator, to over $6 for an early childhood teacher.

The major catch is that only about 40 per cent of ECEC centres will be eligible for this funding. They will have to apply to the EYQF, meet the evidence criteria, and once the funding has run out – that’s it.

So the Government’s solution to the identified problem of gender-based wage inequity is an undignified race to see who can apply for the limited funds — putting ECEC organisations in the position of squabbling over the donation jar.

The Government concedes that the EYQF will be a short-term measure. The real focus will be to supporting a wage equity case at Fair Work Australia.

This is a worthy aim, but in the meantime the symptoms of this temporary scheme won’t help a struggling sector. Competition over a small pool of funds is likely to deepen the divide between not-for-profit and private providers, who are already fighting over an ever-dwindling number of qualified educators.

Staff will simply shift employers to those who have been fortunate enough to access funding, leaving huge staff shortages in other parts of the sector — directly disadvantaging children.

As I have written before, the ECEC sector is already split between community-based not-for-profit operations, and private operators.

The Government’s generous childcare subsidies have allowed private operators to grow and thrive. It’s also given them plenty to spend on advocacy against improvements to quality and educator-child ratios.

In effect, they’re is paying the private operators to work against them, allowing them to employ lobbyists and use conservative media connections to undermine attempts to reform the sector and provide greater outcomes for children.

It is understandable that the Government does not want additional funding going to those centres. However, the current structure of the sector as a free-market free-for-all is the direct responsibility of the government, who refused to heed the lessons of the 2008 ABC Learning collapse and repudiate the for-profit model of early childhood education and care.

United Voice, the union for early childhood educators (who negotiated this deal), are understandably keen to ensure that their members benefit as opposed to private operators who are uniformly anti-union.

I also firmly believe that early childhood educators should join their union and actively work towards the Big Steps campaign, as the power of collective action to address injustice has been demonstrated time and time again in other low-paid and low-valued work (such as nursing and aged care).

But celebrating a deal that segregates the sector reflects the failure of those involved to understand that this fight is not about individuals, but the role of an early childhood educator. This is bigger than any one campaign, or any one announcement.

As with Fair Work’s decision that the Social and Community Awards wage rate must rise, this is about valuing the work of those who work with young children and removing continuing wage discrimination on the basis of gender.

The government has publicly acknowledged (finally) that the early childhood educator role is undervalued. The professional standing and respect of the entire sector, not a select few.

We either value educators enough to treat all of them with the same respect and recognition, or we pick and choose — devaluing us all.

This article was originally published by New Matilda on April 22, 2013.