Labor’s ECEC policy blunts hard edges of Coalition’s plans, but fundamental reform still nowhere in sight

Mid-way into the endless 2016 election campaign, Labor has released the details of its early childhood education and care policies.

Continue reading “Labor’s ECEC policy blunts hard edges of Coalition’s plans, but fundamental reform still nowhere in sight”

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Senate Report reveals sector is taking a huge gamble supporting the Jobs for Families Package

The partisan report from the Senate Committee hearings into the Jobs for Families Package clearly articulate the Government’s view of ECEC as parent welfare, not education for children.

After consultations, public hearings and duelling economic modelling at ten paces, the long-awaited Senate report into the Jobs for Families has been released. Predictably, the Government-majority Committee has recommended the Senate pass the package as it currently stands. Labor and the Greens delivered dissenting reports.

For advocates in the sector with a focus on children (not workforce participation with a side order of children’s rights), it’s a tough read.

Continue reading “Senate Report reveals sector is taking a huge gamble supporting the Jobs for Families Package”

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.

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.

The Abbott Government is playing the community off against itself on the right to childcare

The Productivity Commission is due to hand down its draft report into the Childcare and Early Learning sector this month. As the deadline approaches, we are finally beginning to see indications of policy approach from the Federal Government in this area.

The Coalition spent most of its time in Opposition, and so far all of its time in Government, blasting the ALP for inefficient management of the childcare sector. “Costs have skyrocketed”, they’ve declared; “educators are drowning in red tape”, they’ve proclaimed.

Over the last week a new angle has become clearer. The ALP’s mismanagement has left the system open to rorters and fraudsters. Decent, hard-working families are being denied places at their local childcare centre as the service is full-to-the-brim with the children of “stay-at-home-Mums”.

So determined to drag childcare into the Government’s overall narrative of “lifters versus leaners”, the Government has even started to demonise the very “stay-at-home-Mums” that during the Howard years were feted and showered with election-eve spending at the slightest hint of a poll drop.

The Government has been determined to reframe a difficult post-Budget period into a classic “us against them” battle, and it was inevitable that the complex and difficult issues around quality, affordability and accessibility of childcare would similarly be split.

Let’s get the obvious retorts out the way first. The Government has provided no data, statistics or numbers on any of the claims it has made. None at all. It has merely presented these issues as facts, and expected people to respond to them as such.

There are already clear, priority-of-access guidelines in place for all long day care services which clearly prioritise working families. If the Department of Education has specific evidence that specific services are flouting these guidelines, in breach of their operational commitments, then they can be followed up.

The Government has also alleged widespread rorting of a subsidy for parents who are studying (Commonwealth Jobs, Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance or JETCCFA scheme), and has again directly implicated service providers. Apparently “some” parents are over-claiming this subsidy, and “increasing number” of services are claiming for services not provided and “a number” of services are overcharging to claim more of the subsidy.

It might be hard to pick through the dense layer of hard data and statistics quoted above from the Assistant Minister for Education’s press release, but it’s hard to actually tell how much of a problem this is from the information provided.

It’s the same story with the bludging parents taking up all the childcare places. The Assistant Minister has provided no evidence or data on the amount or increase of this problem. “It’s a very frustrating thing when you can’t get a place and you are a working parent and others who are not already have a place,’’ said the Minister – and she is undoubtedly right.

But the problem is that the Government are not proposing anything that will actually resolve these issues.

What the Government is doing is finally giving us an indication of what their policy approach to childcare will be.

A Productivity Commission into the sector was the right call, and should actually have been carried out some time ago. Childcare and early learning is an entirely different sector now than it was in the 1990s.

But the Commission has been critically held back from actually proposing the reforms that are desperately needed. The terms of reference provided to the Commission by the Treasurer Joe Hockey explicitly state that no further budget funds will be provided to childcare overall, despite investment in early childhood education being internationally recognised as best practice.

Given that restraint, the Commission will not be able to propose any policy changes that will actually fix the chronic underfunding and fragmentation of the childcare sector.

It is in that context that the Government’s framing of the debate becomes clearer. Despite the irrefutable evidence that access to high quality childcare has a hugely positive benefit not just to children and families but society as a whole, the Government will be making it harder for some children to access childcare.

For children’s advocates, every child has the right to access a high quality childcare service.

But rather than invest, repair and expand the sector to meet the needs of the modern Australian community, the Abbott Government will seek to play the community off against itself on which families and children have the right to access a service.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for?

Disappointingly, the Government continues to use the Productivity Commission to paper over its complete lack of a childcare policy. Beyond pointing out the issues and declaring war on “the dead hand of government regulation”, the childcare sector and the community in general have no idea what the Abbott Government think should happen in this area.

This week, the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley may have given us a brief and tantalising spoiler. Responding to questions on what policies the Productivity Commission may propose, Ms Ley was quoted in The Australian:

“Ms Ley said “something is wrong with this picture” when asked about working parents unable to find places because they were taken by the children of parents who were not working.”

A simple statement that jibes well with the Government’s overall economic message of “lifters and leaners”, but in the context of childcare it is worth digging a little deeper on what Ms Ley may be telling us.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for? Let’s look at the candidates.

1. The economy

The strong contender. Freeing up parents to contribute to the workforce has obvious benefits to the economy at large. This imperative has been a significant part of most countries creation of their own childcare policies and frameworks, and Australia is no different.

Australia’s economy is performing exceptionally by international standards, but workforce participation is a huge driver of growth and wealth.

2. Families

When we say families, we have to be upfront and say “mothers”. In Australia it is still women that face the greatest challenge in returning to the workforce after having children.

The benefits to families are not just about returning to work. Quality early learning programs help prepare children for formal schooling, and have the potential to remediate the effects of family instability or vulnerability. International research has demonstrated that early learning has the potential to change the destinies of families.

The childcare sector is also designed to facilitate empowerment of women to maintain their careers alongside their families – but the catch in Australia has always been that childcare services need to be affordable, accessible and of high quality. Since the deregulation of the sector in the 1990s, Australia was struggled with all three of those indicators.

3. Children

And the last on our list of candidates: children. The fundamental irony of the sector is that is directed to provide education and care to over 1 million Australian children, but the rights and needs of children are usually far down on the list of priorities.

The National Quality Framework was a strong attempt to provide a foundational expectation of quality in the outcomes for children attending childcare services. More structural reforms were needed to address the issues created by deregulation however, which were best exemplified in the spectacular collapse of ABC Learning in 2008.

Returning to Ms Ley’s statement, we can see that while the economy and workforce participation are high on the list of goals for childcare, children are not getting a look-in. She is indicating the Government would prefer that only children of working parents have the right to access childcare. This is a significant statement.

Advocates for early childhood education, including myself, view access to quality childcare as not just an economic issue, but a matter of human rights. Children have the human right to attend a quality early learning program, regardless of their socio-economic background or the current circumstances of their parents.

Australia does not currently have strong record on the upholding of children’s rights. We are currently turning ourselves into outcasts in the international community with our illegal and inhumane treatment of child asylum seekers; each day of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reveals new horrors from Australia’s dark past of systemic failures to protect children; and child protection agencies around the country struggle to successfully keep children safe in the face of budget cuts and under-resourcing.

Approaching the sector only from the perspective of improving the economy leaves the system open to fail children – as it shockingly has in Ireland and the United States.

The importance of early childhood education, including strong childcare policies and structures, is now internationally recognised. As with the issues of asylum seekers, climate change and a host of others, Australia will fall behind the rest of the world by failing to properly invest in childcare.

But placing the rights of children at the centre of a restructuring of our approach to childcare has the primary benefit of being the right thing do by our society’s children, but the added benefits of meeting the outcomes for the economy as well.

A childcare sector that is properly funded and supported doesn’t have to pick and choose between the three outcomes listed above – it can actually choose Option 4: all of the above.

High-profile advocacy is being successfully run internationally – but not in Australia

Big Steps Day crowd in Garema Place, Canberra

2014 is a huge year for early childhood education in Australia – so now seems like a good time to ask why Australian advocacy for early learning is not working.

The global profile of early childhood education has probably never been higher. Whether it’s universal access, workforce participation for women and the resultant economic benefits, or the proven link between high quality early learning and addressing structural disadvantage for children, the case to focus policy and budgets on young children is being made all over the world.

Just to pick a few examples, the United Kingdom is having an active political discussion on the merits of universal childcare, which will be one of the key issues of the upcoming 2015 General Election.

President Barrack Obama has also highlighted early childhood education as a priority in his second and final term of office, while former Secretary of State (and very possibly the next President of the US) Hillary Clinton is spearheading a huge advocacy push called Too Small to Fail.

Canadian advocates have been running a long-term, targeted and very savvy campaign targeting local councils and the national Government – The Plan for $10/Day Child Care.

Smart, focused and high-profile campaigns are being successfully run internationally. The same cannot be said for Australia.

This is not to say there are not excellent advocates and advocacy organisations that are operating in Australia – there certainly are.

But in terms of scale, scope and recognition to the general public? Nothing on the scale of any of the international examples.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, Australia faces many of the same political and social challenges as the countries listed above – sluggish economies, challenges to workforce participation and rising burden of cost of childcare to families.

We also know from Australian data that 1 in 4 children are starting formal schooling with a developmental delay.

The rising costs of ECEC, issues with availability and a new push for quality are regular items in the media. The conditions are perfect for a clear advocacy campaign to cut through.

But nothing has. There is no clarion call for universal access to early childhood services – individuals are calling for it, but only as individual voices lost in a swirl of op-eds and half-baked ideas about importing nanny-servants.

The Big Steps campaign has enjoyed publicity and even a significant victory – but its target is narrow (professional wages) and comes with the baggage of being a union campaign, fairly or unfairly.

A new player on the block is The Parenthood, a social-media-driven network of families advocating on a number of issues. It’s too soon to effectively judge this group, but it’s important to remember that at this stage The Parenthood (despite some media attention) have not yet demonstrated they have broken through to the wider community.

Their most recent campaign to quarantine preschool funding has only attracted just over 1300 signatures so far. Not insignificant, but not game-changing.

Hard as it may be to admit, the most consistently clear, targeted and successful advocacy on ECEC issues has come from Gwynn Bridge and the Australian Childcare Alliance.

They are the go-to group for the media, have a close relationship with the most senior decision-maker in our sector Assistant Minister Sussan Ley, and have effectively and in all likelihood irrevocably set a significant portion of the sector against quality reforms and the raising of standards for centres.

Like it or not, advocates for high-quality, accessible and child-focused ECEC need to learn from Ms. Bridge and her organisation, and they will need to do it quickly.

The sector has been beset by fragmentation and a lack of collaboration. Reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s turned early learning into a market-based free-for-all. Community organisations who should be natural partners on this issue instead compete for government tenders and grants.

The submissions to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into the sector revealed a frightening lack of consensus amongst early childhood organisations and stakeholders, and more broadly in the community demonstrated the lack of a single “vision” to reach for.

Instead of the community having a smart, simple campaign they could latch on to, we’re stuck with whatever ridiculous thought bubble the latest Think Tank has just thrown up.

The fundamental reason that we don’t have a banner to rally around is that no-one could agree what colour it would be, let alone what would be written on it.

Internationally, Australia is viewed as fairly progressive – we did after all briefly elect an atheist, unmarried woman as our leader.

But everything I know about Australia tells a different story – a country with a deep, long and embedded relationship with conservatism.

The same country – and the same political party – that elected Julia Gillard mercilessly and callously cut her down, with more than a whiff of relaxed sighs when two successive white men in suits (and idiotic grins) took her place.

The main progressive party in this country re-opened Manus Island and signed the PNG re-settlement deal. It has supported ever-encroaching freedom for intelligence agencies to collect information on us.

In the last Parliament, only 48 MPs out of 150 voted for marriage equality. 26 of the “No” votes came from the ALP. To contrast, conservative governments in New Zealand and the United Kingdom have implemented laws allowing for gay marriage.

The case for high-quality, accessible and affordable childcare strikes on a deeply conservative nerve as I have written before. Conservative values say the kids stay at home with Mum. Universal childcare has the potential to undermine the much-hyped about “family unit”, with Mum, Dad and the little kiddies.

Despite a laid-back, “all good” image we project abroad, Australia has demonstrated time and time again that we are conservative nation that occasionally (and reluctantly) dabbles with progressive notions. Early childhood advocates will need to be strategic and persistent to defeat that.

But there is a slight silver lining – when Australia does go progressive, it goes hard. Medicare is a good example. Free, universal healthcare is not going anywhere, no matter how conservative the Government of the day may be.

Progressive wins, when they are completely won, are fully embedded. Universal early childhood education could be the next big win.

I’ve identified the problems – now what are the solutions?

Large early childhood organisations need to come together across the country for large-scale and targeted political advocacy.

Getting those organisations to agree on every point will never happen – so it needs to be around something simple. For me, the focal point has to be the continuation of the NQF in its current form.

Removing the points of contention and coming together around this issue is not impossible, but could have significant impact. A coalition of providers in Australia could be a powerful political force – now we just have to see if they realise it.

Premium early learning costs families a lot, but it may ultimately cost the sector even more

fees

It’s time to tackle a topic that has been an undercurrent of this blog for quite some time. Warning to regular readers – this entry will either absolutely infuriate you, or ring true.

The last week or so has seen a number of articles, primarily in Fairfax papers, on the rise of “premium” childcare.

Julia Davison, CEO of not-for-profit group Goodstart Early Learning, said:

…for-profit centres, faced with rising costs, were choosing to set up where they could charge more for ”premium” care.

‘There is much more incentive for for-profit operators to set up in those localities where you can charge a high fee and where you’re going to get a high occupancy than there is for them to set up in middle or lower economic suburbs,” she said.

This has been a steadily growing niche of the market for quite some time. They are in the business of offering “boutique” care for children of high-income families in well-heeled suburbs.

Extra services can include massage for infants, dance classes, yoga – all inclusive in a large fee.

It’s important at this point to be clear that these services are working exactly as the early childhood system in Australia allows them to. Deregulation of the sector throughout the 90s and early 2000s were designed to create exactly this kind of private model – the market has spoken.

The issue of “premium” centres, or indeed the very notion of for-profit early learning for children, is not an legal one, or an economic or financial one.

But is an ethical one.

For me, it comes down to a single question. Does every child in Australia have the right to quality, well-resourced early learning environments, or only those whose parents can afford it?

This is a question that the Australian early childhood sector will have to reflect on, and fast.

I’ve put my cards on the table a number of times, in a number of forums, but I’m happy to state my opinion clearly again now.

Profiting from early learning for Australia’s children is ethically and morally dubious.

There are undoubtedly excellent, passionate and highly-trained educators, managers and professionals working in for-profit spaces. Some of them may be reading this post, and be highly offended.

I regret that result, but I cannot swerve from the overriding position. Quality education is a human right for children, and profiting from that human right skews perspectives.

It is the reason there is a highly organised lobby organisation, the Australian Childcare Alliance, advocating for winding back of quality reforms. They eat into profit margins.

As soon as profit is a motive, it tends to become the dominant motive.

However, as I have already stated, this is the system that we work in. For a number of reasons, community not-for-profits cannot currently provide total coverage of Australia for early learning access.

That is a fact, and it also a fact that private operators meet that need for access.

(It is important at this point to say that there is no reason that these facts must be eternal. At a political level, advocacy must be directed towards appropriate funding of community not-for-profit models to meet that demand. A gargantuan task, but not impossible.)

But the new niche of premium childcare, is in altogether another league. The idea that you can access high-quality, almost “luxury” early learning for your child if you happen to live in a wealthy suburb and earn enough money should ring warning bells.

It strikes right at the heart of what early childhood education should be about – the human rights of the child.

Beyond the ultimate exclusion of children who will simply be unable to attend these services, it entrenches and actively accelerates social inequity and injustice already evident in Australia.

The Early Years Learning Framework has respect for diversity as a foundational principle. The premium model inherently excludes that. Only those from a certain “class” (let’s call this what it is) and wage bracket can attend.

Children only socialising with children who are the most fortunate, and the most well-off. Families doing the same with those families.

But possibly the most concerning of all – educators who only have to work with children from a certain background. My mind spins as I think about how that would affect someone.

Not having to navigate a wide range of diversity. Not having to form respectful and committed relationships to families experiencing hardship and disadvantage. Not putting in the weeks, months and years of effort to support children experiencing vulnerabilities.

That has the potential to skew how you view children and families at a basic level. The repercussions to early childhood practice are far-reaching.

There will be those that say I have put myself and my own practice on an ethical pedestal. It’s extremely easy to cast stones.

I accept the fact that the system is not perfect. I work for a not-for-profit organisation, but despite that there are still those who will not be able to access our services.

I acknowledge that, and commit myself to advocacy to change this inequitable system.

But to be part of an organisation that clearly and unambiguously states “these are the kind of children we want to work with” is mind-boggling to me.

The sector operates within limited funding parameters. Desperately needed funds to support all children are being invested in premium providers.

Premium early learning costs families a lot, but it may ultimately cost the sector even more.

Previous government’s trial program points to the need for facts in the flexibility debate

Should children's education and centres be more flexible with their opening hours?

Less than 100 families have made use of the Labor Government’s flexible childcare trials, according to figures from the Department of Education published in Fairfax papers. The trials were announced in March 2013 by Minister Kate Ellis, apparently as a result of “a clear demand for more flexible child care options”.

The $1.3 million Flexibility Fund was open to children’s services to provide a range of different options for families, including longer opening hours and even overnight or weekend services.

The trial featured a number of Family Day Care providers working with shift-workers in the emergency services sector, as well as a handful of Long Day Care centres trialling extended opening hours.

The report comes in the middle of ongoing media speculation regarding the Government’s planned changes to the children’s education and care sector. They are currently awaiting the outcome of the Productivity Commission Inquiry into the sector before making any changes.

But the Assistant Minister Sussan Ley has repeatedly pointed to a lack of flexibility in the sector to accommodate the needs of modern families. A point hardly backed up by the dismal take-up rate of the flexible options funded by Labor’s trials.

But the political debate around flexibility of children’s services has never been about facts. It seems to have become an assumed “fact” of the sector that it is not meeting the needs of a significant amount of families, but no person, organisation or peak body has actually provided data on this.

Surveys have indicated that anecdotally there are families who are wishing for extended opening hours particularly, but the Department of Education’s analysis suggests this is not a critical issue and that families are only requiring it on an “ad-hoc basis”.

So the assumed “fact” that flexibility is a major and concerning issue needs to be challenged. The results of the trial indicate that it is actually a very minor issue compared to actual availability, and affordability for a number of families.

The issues around shift-workers (particularly those in emergency services) is not just one for the sector – it is one that needs be addressed as an Australian community.

Simply extending operating hours to meet the needs of every single person who requires it is a ridiculous solution to this issue.

There first needs to be some facts on the table on how many families this is affecting, and then a discussion about a holistic approach to addressing it.

The business community needs to be a large part of the discussion. The community sector is often expected to twist and bend itself to meet the needs of business – are there any discussions taking place about business being more flexible to the needs of young families?

The failure of the Flexibility Fund should encourage policy makers to look at these issues holistically, and not as isolated “problems” that can be “fixed” with a targeted program.

Where will the Government be heading on early childhood education?

ac-abbott-defcon-20130826061341936952-620x0

The due date for submissions to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Childcare and Early Learning has now passed, and the Commission now begins the process of preparing a draft report for the Federal Government. This draft report will be available in early July.

It is worth discussing the likely paths that the Federal Government will take when the Commission delivers its final report at the end of October.

The National Quality Framework (NQF) was a national push to set baseline standards for children’s education and care. It was a Federal Labor initiative but was signed up to, and continues to be implemented by, State and Territory Governments of both sides of politics.

It set significant new standards for qualification requirements, ratios and supporting children’s learning to be phased in between 2012 and 2020.

Despite some showing some limited support during the 2013 election campaign, the Government has generally attacked the quality reforms as being an unnecessary regulatory burden and described centres as drowning “in a sea of red tape”.

The Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley has directly linked the implementation of the NQF to a sharp increase in fees for families.

The biggest political issue in the children’s education and care sector is affordability. Between June 2012 and June 2013 there was a 45c rise in the average hourly fee for children’s services in Australia, on top of similar increases in the preceding years.

When in Opposition, the Coalition used the fee increases to consistently attack the Labor Government.

It is clear from the most recent data that the out-of-pocket spend for families remained at a relatively low level of 8-9% of total income across all income brackets, due to Labor’s increase in the Child Care Rebate from 30% to 50%.

But due in part the byzantine nature of the subsidy system and an effective political campaign of negativity from the Opposition, the narrative on runaway fee increases struck a chord with families.

The Coalition has strived to continue that narrative in Government, firmly placing the current issues of affordability onto the Labor Party.

The Government will surely be aware however that this will only work for a short period of time. Politically, this issue will soon be owned solely by them.

The Government has so far resisted committing to any specifics on changes to the childcare sector, stating that they are waiting for the Productivity Commission to provide their final report.

But when it comes, the Government will need to provide a clear and detailed response to the issues facing the sector.

The key funding lever for the Government is the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate subsidies (both introduced by the Howard Government).

They may seem completely unconnected, but recent refusals by the Government to provide industry assistance to Holden and SPC Ardmona may actually provide us with some insight into their thinking on the CCB/CCR subsidy.

The decision to deny assistance packages to those companies has demonstrated that the Government is prepared to make tough decisions on spending taxpayer money to support businesses.

The childcare sector is currently a majority private enterprise, with private operators making over two-thirds of the sector. The rest are run as not-for-profit community services.

The CCB/CCR subsidy essentially acts as indirect industry assistance to the operators of children’s services. Approximately $5 billion a year is spent on that subsidy – a not insignificant amount of money. Is it possible that the Government would consider lowering that amount of subsidy?

This would come at a huge political cost. In the June quarter 2013 over 742,000 families accessed some form of formal childcare.

Having spent their time drawing attention to the affordability issue as a political weapon, the onus is now on the Government to take steps to address it.

To complicate matters, they have instructed the Productivity Commission that any suggestions they put forward must be within “current funding parameters”. This leaves them with only a few options.

Either the CCB/CCR subsidy is lowered, a politically “courageous” decision as Sir Humphrey might put it, or the quality standards currently being implemented by the National Quality Framework are drastically rolled back.

Given the political considerations, the second option is far more likely. Which puts a lot of the Government’s statements in the media into context.

The focus on “over-regulation” and “red tape” in the media since the implementation on the NQF, and its intense focus over recent weeks, can be seen as laying groundwork for a large-scale downgrading of those reforms.

They can be sold not as a cut on quality outcomes for children, but as a cut on red tape.

This would be a disastrous outcome for Australia’s children. Advocates for quality education and care have stressed the importance of taking early learning seriously as in investment in Australia’s future prosperity.

It would be shame indeed if political expediency hampers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Productivity Commission Inquiry to recommend sweeping structural reforms to quality and affordability – without choosing one over the other.