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”.

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

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.

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.

Early childhood education: the next great Australian project?

I was fortunate enough to attend a breakfast event at Parliament House this morning, hosted by Goodstart Early Learning and Early Childhood Australia.

As well as featuring MPs (including the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley), Professor Frank Oberklaid spoke on the importance of investment in public policy aimed at the early years.

As the Founding Director of the Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Professor Oberklaid is an expert on the development of young children – particularly their brains.

He made a strong argument for a greater, bipartisan focus on funding investments in early years programs, particularly early childhood education and care.

As all the most recent research tells us, children exposed to vulnerable situations will start life on the back foot – and will most likely never escape that handicap.

Yet the evidence also shows that quality early childhood programs can help to close that gap, at a significantly lesser cost than trying to close it later in life.

I was particularly struck by Professor Oberklaid’s challenge to view investment in the early years as Australia’s “next Snowy Mountain” project. This chimes with my own frustrations on current public policy in the early years, which is more “fiddling around the edges” of existing systems.

It would be incredible to see a bipartisan commitment to undertaking the big reforms that are needed – not to change the odd regulation, or add another bit here, but to fundamentally alter how we support young children and families in Australia.

Navigating partisans, politicians and dimwits: Advocacy, Australian-style!

It was a huge honour to be invited to speak at Community Child Care Co-operative’s 35th Birthday event, alongside such incredible early childhood “rockstars” as Alma Fleet, Eva Cox, Lisa Bryant, Anthony Semann and more. For those on Twitter, check out the hashtag #CCCCis35 to check out some of the incredible moments from the day.

The post below is my prepared presentation at the event – there were some minor changes on the day which reflected what I had heard and been inspired by in the previous presentations.

I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather today, the Cadigal People of the Eora Nation. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I call home and work from, the Ngunnawal People.

I’d like to wish Community Child Care Co-operative a very Happy 35th Birthday! It is a great honour to be invited by them to speak with you today. As CCCC has been such a positive and powerful force for advocacy in NSW and around Australia, to be invited to speak on that topic is somewhat nerve-wracking!

It is also a huge privilege to be speaking alongside such incredible educators, activists and leaders in the sector. I’ve worked with some of you professionally in the past, some of you I’ve followed through your writing, and some of you I’ve had long arguments with on Twitter.

It was particularly exciting to meet the wonderful Lisa Bryant (@lisajbryant) in person today, who has been a regular social media sparring partner! The early childhood community on social media is growing each day, which can only be a fantastic development.

The ability of social networking and online forums, such as Early Childhood Australia’s NQS Forum, are invaluable to the ongoing discussions, disagreements and arguments that will be shaping the future of our sector.

The late Christopher Hitchens once said that “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.”

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those in this room that I have spent valuable time “discussing” the finer points of early childhood policy with.

My talk today is focused on policy and politics – hopefully it will be a little more interesting than that sounds!

I set up my blog to explore the nexus between children, policy and politics – obviously particularly focused on the early childhood education and care sector.

As a sector, I don’t think we’ve successfully explored or acted in that space. With my usual arrogance and desire to hear my own voice, I figured I’d have a go.

This is not to denigrate the exceptional work of advocates and activists in this room, or advocacy organisations like CCCCNSW, who do incredible work.

But we need to acknowledge that our advocacy has not been as successful, or as strategic, as we need it to be.

Galling though it may be, we also need to acknowledge that the private operators do advocacy better.

They’re kicking our backsides. The Australian Childcare Alliance has a full-time lobbyist at Parliament House.

They’ve cultivated a close relationship with the new Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley. A close-enough relationship that there is a more-than-passing resemblance to each other’s press releases.

The political agenda on children’s early education in this country is shaped by that advocacy.

So I have worked to focus my advocacy on policy, and politics.

My drive for advocacy has grown as my career has grown. My first love is working directly with children, but my career has slowly moved me away from day-to-day work with them. First as a Centre Director, and now as the ACT Territory Manager for Goodstart Early Learning.

The face-to-face work with children is crucial, it’s everything – and I salute those of you here today who are still in those roles.

From the first time I took on a Director’s role, I felt a powerful responsibility to advocate for the work of those in my team who were doing that tricky and complex work every day as Team Leaders, or assistant educators.

For me, this started with the Big Steps campaign. Although Directors are certainly not paid enough for the work they do, I felt that the privilege of the higher pay-rate, the ability to manage my own time, the greater ability with which I could access professional development and networking opportunities, conferred on me an ethical responsibility to advocate.

This has been particularly clear to me in my current role as an Area Manager – particularly in the new world of the National Quality Framework.

The Framework ask a lot of Centre Directors – they are legally responsible for their centres, with all the pressures and challenges that entails.

Those of us in roles such as mine, without legislative responsibilities and with no direct day-to-day, ongoing work with children, are in what my Manager and professional mentor gleefully describes as “made-up jobs”.

I am not in the ECEC National Law. The Government has not deemed my job to be essential to the successful education and care of Australia’s children.

I’m going to assume there are people in similar positions in the room today – don’t worry, I won’t make you put your hands up!

What I would ask you to do is to reflect critically on your roles – my challenge to you is if you are not advocating tirelessly for those who are carrying out the day-to-day teaching and education with children, you are not doing your job.

I am fortunate to work with an incredible team of Centre Directors in the ACT, and I’d like to just acknowledge their professionalism and work in their communities of children, families and educators.

I reflect every day on the privileges that my “made-up” job entails me, and if I cannot justify my work to that group of incredible women at the end of the day – then it’s not worth me being there.

For me, this means that above and beyond my day-to-day work, of which advocacy is certainly a part, it also means advocating above and beyond my 38 hours a week.

Anything less I could not ethically justify.

My particular focus with advocacy is politics. Political advocacy has always been one of the most common, and most effective, forms of advocacy as it is targeted at those who actually make the decisions.

My interest in politics stemmed largely from growing up as a teenager in the Howard years. I don’t want to get into a big discussion around Right vs. Left, but those 11 years left a deep impression on me and many in my generation.

The issue that particularly engaged me was refugee policy.

It seemed incredible to me, as a naive sixteen-year old, that we could actually make laws and decisions that treated people so cruelly.

That women and men working comfortably in offices in one of the most prosperous nations on Earth could sign documents and make telephone calls that would directly imperil the lives of people fleeing persecution that I could not even imagine.

Now, being from Canberra for the last 15 years, it’s very easy to reduce politics to bureaucracy – to people passing paper around with little-to-no impact on the real lives of people.

Our politics and policies on refugees and asylum seekers helped me realise that politics and policy have a direct impact on every one of our lives, whether we know it or not.

Just as those decisions can directly impact people fleeing persecution from outside Australia, decisions made in Canberra have a direct and deep impact on the work we do, and the communities we do it in.

They are the frameworks we put around our society.

The connection with early childhood policy took a bit longer to come to me, but since then it has informed my work as a professional in this sector.

It particularly “clicked” for me when I came to a single, clear realisation about our work.

Children’s education and care policy in this country is not about children.

It is about workforce participation.

The childcare sector in Australia is entirely set up, resourced and funded to ensure that families are at work and contributing to the economy.  This fact informs every part of our sector, every challenge and every frustration.

Australia’s entire policy focus on early childhood education, on both sides of politics, Labor and Liberal, and even in far-left parties like the Green, has nothing to do with children.

This almost made sense in the 1970s, when getting women into the workforce wasn’t just a social and moral challenge, but a practical one.

Women with children were expected to remain at home.

The strides that have been made in gender equality since then are due in no small part to the creation of a formal, regulated and affordable childcare sector.

Greater numbers of women in the workplace have forced organisations to slowly (in some cases, extremely slowly) adapt to the 21st Century.

The childcare sector played a large role in that, and is overwhelmingly positive. But more than 40 years later, the paradigm needs to shift.

It’s no longer enough for us to accept that the early childhood education and care sector is just there to “babysit” children so their parents can contribute to the economy.

The latest figures from DEEWR tell us that for the first time in Australia’s history, over a million children are now in some form of ECEC. This is a staggering amount, and represents a major challenge for Australian society.

At the beginning of my talk I mentioned our friend Judith Sloan. It’s important to analyse her perspective on ECEC beyond her ridiculous comments about “dimwits”.

Her article points to the underlying tension of our work. The notion of universal access early childhood education for all children is a direct attack on conservative “family values”.

The conservative argument is essentially that the best place for a child, any child, is in a stable home with Mum and Dad (certainly not two Dads, or two Mums, but we’ll save that for another time).

I never attended childcare when I was a young child. I still did well in school, have a University degree (admittedly not from a Uni that would meet with Judith’s approval) and have a great job in a sector I love.

My parents had no degrees in early childhood education, but helped set my brother and I up to work hard in our studies (primary, secondary and tertiary) and in our work.

My story would provide “evidence” for conservatives that access to early childhood programs is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.

However, I was extremely fortunate to have two well-educated, stable and loving parents with no mental health issues or other vulnerabilities.

I was given every chance to be successful, even before I was in school.

But we are part of a society where not every child has those same opportunities. Some children will grow up in challenging and disruptive environments, where their parents are suffering immense challenges of their own.

Advocating for universal access to ECE is about ensuring that any child, no matter the circumstances of their home life, can be given the same head start I was given.

So I believe that we are getting near a crossroads – I would actually like us to be at that crossroads now, but unfortunately I think we’re a way off even from that.

Brain research consistently tells us that the first five years are absolutely crucial. Long-term studies like the Australian Early Development Index and the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children also point to those formative years as the building blocks for later life.

With a million children now accessing some form of childcare in those foundational five years, it is no longer good enough for our sector to just be about workforce participation.

We have the incredible opportunity to be improving children’s lives right here and now, and in so doing drastically lower their risk of experiencing vulnerability throughout the rest of their lives.

Children who struggle early will continue to struggle, and will find it harder to engage in formal learning and study, increasing the challenges they will face in employment and housing.

These foundational years all take place before children set foot in a school – and yet our entire education focus for children, from a policy and political perspective, only really begins in Year 1 of school.

So is Australia ready to leave behind the paradigm of workforce participation, and adopt a truly child-centred approach to ECEC?

Yes, the majority of states and territories have some form of funded preschool, but it’s telling that over the last 2-3 years of public debate around David Gonski’s school reforms, preschool and long day care was conspicuously absent.

I’ll be blunt – that our sector was not represented in those policy discussions points to a significant failure on our part, and the need to significantly raise our levels of advocacy.

This was our chance to raise our voices – the challenges we as a society will be helping children to face throughout their childhood years can, and MUST, be addressed in early childhood.

And yet, nothing.

I look at the recent election, and the only time early childhood education and care was mentioned was in terms of fees, waiting lists, planning permits and workforce participation.

Again, this represents a significant failure of our advocacy.

I’m sorry to be the person at the birthday party who brings the tone down, and I understand I won’t be getting many invites to other parties after today!

But if we are to take our advocacy leadership seriously, we need to acknowledge our challenge.

There are advocates in this room who have done incredible work, who have spoken and written and banged their fists on tables around the country. CCCC has done incredible work.

But despite all of that, we have not shifted majority opinion. We have not changed enough minds.

The debate in Australia, beyond these walls today, is not about universal access. It’s not about children’s rights. It’s not about the potential for ECEC to lift children out of structural disadvantage.

It’s about fees. It’s about freezing the CCR. It’s about “flexible opening hours”.

As leaders in our sector, and as advocates for children, we have to do better. It is unacceptable to do anything less.

We know the importance of what we do. We know the challenges, we know the structural inequities that stand in our way. It’s no use convincing the people in this room.

Our advocacy has to go beyond that.

We also know that if we are serious about improving outcomes for children; if we are serious about upholding children’s rights and their voice in our society; then we have to be the ones who are raising our voices.

If people aren’t listening, it’s our job to make them listen. Are we using every opportunity to raise the profile of our work, demonstrate our professionalism and inform people of our potential?

Are we creating opportunities to do those things?

So that is our challenge. I am not doing enough. None of us are.

Until we are having debates in cafes and offices around the best way to fund true universal access to early childhood education for children, we aren’t doing enough.

Until a journalist in a national, televised debate asks a candidate running for Prime Minister what their plans are to use ECEC to improve outcomes for children at a foundational level, we have not done enough.

Until the right of children to fully and freely participate in quality early learning programs is a national priority, and embracing that is a cornerstone of our education, family and health policies, we have not done enough.

So, enjoy the day and particularly enjoy the cocktail party tonight. Because tomorrow, we’ve got some work to do.

I’ve talked a lot about what we’re not getting right, despite the hard work of people in this room today. What are my thoughts on the next steps?

Above all, be fearless. Have arguments. Speak your truth.

Through my limited reach as a writer and participant on social media, I have forcefully and doggedly argued views that have infuriated and aggravated friends and colleagues.

A big one was the Early Years Quality Fund.

A fund that would only reach 40% of the sector, would only last two years and would be awarded on essentially a “first-come, first-served” basis?

This was a deeply flawed funding model, and in my view offensive to me, and those I work with.

I publicly stated that I could not ethically support this Fund, and criticised United Voice for agreeing to it.

In the lead-up to the election, I also publicly voiced my criticism of the Labor Government for their implementation of the National Quality Framework.

This was at a time when the sector was being encouraged to almost band together and cheerlead for Labor.

My firm belief is that the Labor Government categorically failed to implement the NQF in a way that would ensure its survival and growth.

It was a once-in-a-generation chance to change the conversation on Childcare. Labor didn’t do it well enough.

Overlaying the requirements of the National Quality Framework without a plan to address the structural inequities of the system, including the sexist discrimination of low wages, was always going to be problematic.

Are they to be commended for at least attempting? Yes, but I cannot and will not allow partisanship to silence criticism where it is due.

The case for early childhood education reform is a generally “progressive” issue. But this does not mean that advocates for early childhood should just support and “cheerlead” for Labor.

As has been shown all too clearly with refugee policy, Labor is in many ways only a progressive party by comparison with the Coalition.

To put it clearly, blindly supporting Labor without criticism as the only progressive party in town means that if you are, you are now supporting sending pregnant women legally seeking asylum to a tent in Papua New Guinea.

It amazed me the amount of my progressive friends and colleagues who had joined the campaign for Labor, who were suddenly quiet about the issue of asylum seekers after the PNG “solution”.

They had been extremely happy to loudly berate and criticise the Liberal Party, quite rightly, for their policies.

Labor supporters who had criticised the undermining of Julia Gillard by Kevin Rudd and his supporters, suddenly donning Kevin 13 shirts after a quick change-up in the Labor leadership team quite soon before an election.

If the price of joining up with a political party is silence, it is too high.

Advocates should be fearless and furious with criticism. Advocacy should be targeted at politicians, without being tied to a single party.

Advocacy should be about our sector, not political victories for others.

I don’t like to give advice, but I would urge my colleagues in advocacy to remember that.

The issues surrounding our sector – feminism, contested rights between children and parents, the role of education in the social good – demand that we be strategic and smart with our advocacy.

Tying ourselves to a political party or a political ideology is a bad idea.

Another bad idea is to paraphrase Mark Twain, but as he very nearly said: “Loyalty to progressing the early childhood education sector: ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”

Advocacy is not just writing, not just attending rallies or forums. The Early Years Learning Framework encourages educators and teachers to look at every moment with a child, or group of children, as an opportunity to learn.

In exactly the same way, every moment in our day-to-day work is an opportunity to advocate for our professionalism, and the professionalism of the sector as a whole.

Every time you greet a family at the door, we could be advocating. Every time we have a pedagogical discussion with an educator, we could be advocating.

But I firmly believe we also have an obligation, and imperative, to advocate at that wider level – at the level of policy.

The Italian pedagogue and President of Reggio Children Carla Rinaldi encourages advocates to be a “megaphone for children’s voices”.

Aim it at Parliament House.

What made you angry? What frustrated you? When was your voice silenced? What made you want to yell at the TV screen, or your computer?

Write about it. Get it out there. Contact your local MP.

But do not fall victim of the “us versus them”, or “Left vs. Right”, or “Labor vs. Liberal”. As soon as we subsume our advocacy to that of a political ideology, we are no longer advocating. We’re advertising.

It can seem like a huge and uphill battle when you look at where the national discussion now.

Imagine having an election fought on the principles of children’s human rights and the magnifying and uplifting power of early childhood education.

It seems like at the moment as a people we are more focused on having cheap, available childcare.

But, fellow advocates, just remember, as Jon Stewart said, “You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.”

Thank you very much.

Thanks again to Community Child Care Co-operative for inviting me to speak. You can check out their website at http://ccccnsw.org.au/.

Survey: Families prioritise spending on ECEC over PPL

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

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

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

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

Government announces new trials for extended ECEC hours

The Gillard government will today announce new national trials that will include family day care options in the home for parents who do not work standard 9-5 office hours as well as the extended childcare centre hours.

The national experiment will cost $5 million and seek to answer not only whether extended hours are viable for centres but also track whether they reduce the stress levels of families.

Samantha Maiden, Sunday Mail (16/3/2013)

In an election year, “trials” of this kind were an inevitability. It is no doubt a tricky issue – casualisation of the workforce and issues for shift-workers have always been around. While I am in principle supportive of measures to deal with those issues, I am wary of any measures to extend hours for early childhood education and care centres.

As I have written before, turning ECEC into a 24/7 convenience destroys any chance of the sector being viewed as fundamentally an education sector, and as right to children. Instead, it will remain a workforce participation measure and a right for families.

This is fundamentally inequitable for children, and raises substantial questions around how seriously Australia takes the wellbeing and educational rights of children.

Goodstart Early Learning: Government must pay for the reforms they have introduced

Ms Davison’s [Goodstart Early Learning CEO] intervention is significant because Goodstart is a strong supporter of the quality reforms, but she is speaking out to highlight their impact on its operating costs.

She said the debate over the reforms must now be over and the government needs to instead concede that fees will go up and be passed on to parents unless it pays for them as a matter of urgency.

“A full review of the funding model and an increase in levels of funding available to providers and families is the only way to fully realise the benefits that can be achieved through a holistic approach to a child’s education beginning from birth,” she said.

Patricia Karvelas, The Australian (27/2/13)

Fantastic to see Goodstart Early Learning continuing their positive advocacy for children and families with Government. Other not-for-profit providers around Australia should follow their example.

Have we learned our ABCs?

This past week marked the fourth anniversary of the appointment of voluntary administrators Ferrier Hodgson to childcare company ABC Learning, after its stunning public collapse in 2008.

With structural changes aiming to improve the quality of early childhood education and care (the National Quality Framework) beginning to roll out this year and a campaign to improve the wages of early childhood educators making news, it’s a timely anniversary.

ABC Learning was at one time the largest publicly traded childcare operator in the world, at its peak worth $4.1 billion.

It was regularly held up as a shining example of the “free-market” approach to providing early education and care. Its more than 1200 centres (including centres in New Zealand) were used as evidence of the success of John Howard’s changes to the sector — removing the subsidy from service operators and channeling it directly to families.

It was, as we now know, all an incredible sham. The business was in financial turmoil and its founder Eddy Groves is still under economic and legal scrutiny.

In 2008 Labor Government was returned to power, and in 2010 would describe the collapse of ABC Learning as “the greatest ever shock the Australian child care market has experienced”. A Department of Education report, “The State of Childcare in Australia”, identified that “unfettered growth in the provision of corporate child care created an unacceptable risk of serious disruption in the market”.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane wrote in 2008 that the collapse of ABC Learning was not just a business failure, but a serious government policy failure. Keane recommended that “Julia Gillard (then minister for education) should be undertaking a fundamental reconsideration of child care support in Australia,” perhaps including a takeover of ABC’s centres. The Labor Government was continuing the lack of long-term strategic thinking about the goals and growth of the sector, despite investing billions of dollars through subsidies.

Lindsay Tanner, then finance minister, quickly dismissed any notion of a government takeover of ABC. This didn’t come as a shock; if the government became involved in the provision of early education and care to that extent they would have had to take responsibility for the systemic and structural problems that are facing the sector, as well as ABC’s debt.

Not a lot has changed in the four years since ABC’s collapse. Although a large private operator hasn’t emerged to take the place of ABC, around 6000 centres are managed by private, for-profit companies, 71 per cent of the centres in Australia.

The 30 per cent direct rebate to families was increased in 2008 to 50 per cent, and government funding to the sector (mostly indirect, through family subsidies) will reach a projected $22.3 billion over the next four years. Accordingly, the number of children now accessing some form of early education and care has jumped to around 1.3 million.

Yet, despite this significant amount of money, the issues facing the sector have only deepened and become more acute. Workforce retention and turnover is reaching endemic levels and presents a looming disaster as qualification requirements become stricter.

Fees are steadily rising to meet new quality requirements and waiting lists have ballooned, particularly for infants.

But the biggest issue still to face the sector and the community is the one that should have been faced four years ago — the incompatibility of private companies, operating in the sector to make a profit, and quality care.

A recent and timely report from Canada, which has a similar early education subsidy model to Australia, has revealed the inherent contradiction of private operators managing centres while being effectively subsidised by government funding.

Not only does it encourage the kind of financial risk that led to the rise and fall of ABCLearning, the report found, but private operators are effectively paid to push for higher profit margins — which means more children in less space, fewer qualifications and lower wages. All of which can have drastic impacts of the quality of children’s learning and safety.

The same pattern can be seen in Australia. With representation from the Australian Childcare Alliance, which claims to “represent the future of Australian childcare,” the private operators are able to employ a lobbyist to the government to directly advocate for less regulation and caution against raising working conditions for educators.

It should be self-evident that the provision of education and care for Australian children is the responsibility of the community and the government, not private operators. This is not only economically obvious — if the private approach was the best approach government subsidies would be unnecessary — but also ethically obvious.

As was presented to the Government in a submission by Price Waterhouse Coopers in 2011, the only sustainable and equitable model that benefits young children and their families is a government funded and managed model that allows for universal access for all children, regardless of their socio-economic situation.

Community organisations, which currently only provide 26 per cent of early education and care, must work together to present a united front on this issue. Private operators have been effective at coming together and presenting a single voice on issues, which is why the media turn to them for quotes and analysis of early education issues.

The government is currently working with the sector to the implement the National Quality Framework package, which will improve the quality of early education and care services, including lower staff-to-child ratios and higher qualification requirements for early childhood educators.

While the private operators warn of cost increases and burdensome regulation, most experts in the sector actually argue that the changes, although welcome, go only a very small way to creating greater learning outcomes for young children. A lot more needs to be done.

The Gillard Government must face up to the issue that is starting it right in the face. The $22.3 billion it is currently using to subsidise private operators would be far better invested in completely overhauling the sector.

Community organisations are the only operators currently able to fully and ethically represent children and families, but a reluctance to engage in advocacy has been a major failure.

That said, Goodstart Early Learning publicly supported early childhood educators’ union United Voice’s “Big Steps” campaign for government-funded professional wage subsidies for early childhood educators. Ironically, Goodstart Early Learning is the not-for-profit consortium that now manages the majority of centres that ABC Learning mismanaged and left out to dry. There’s a lesson there.

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website.