Government clarifies position on wages for early childhood educators

Big Steps Day crowd in Garema Place, Canberra

Now that submissions to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Child Care and Early Learning have closed, attention has turned to another big event in early childhood education and care in 2014.

Fair Work Australia will be making a ruling on the wages of educators around the middle of the year. One of the things that will decide the final ruling will be whether the wages of educators are chronically low due to the feminisation of the sector – essentially they are lowly paid as the role has been viewed primarily as women’s work, traditionally done for free.

The previous ALP Government referred the case to Fair Work Australia as part of its response to the Big Steps campaign. They also committed funds to a Pay Equity Unit within FWA to assist with the application.

Throughout last year, and the 2013 election, the Coalition supported the referral of the wages issue to Fair Work Australia. Sussan Ley, the Assistant Minister for Education, said in December “Let’s let the Fair Work Commission do its work and come up with a sustainable increase for everybody.”.

At the time, this was a simple political deflection to avoid being perceived as attacking educators.

Now that the FWA decision is in the not-too-distant future, it appears that the Government may be changing its approach somewhat.

The Australian has reported on a Federal Government submission to FWA, where they have warned that granting wage increases to the sector could have negative flow-on effects to other industries.

From The Australian:

In a submission to the commission lodged late yesterday, the government said the tribunal’s task was to redress any gender-based differences in pay, not “undertake an exercise in comparative wage justice”.

The Government seems to be trying to make the point that FWA is not empowered to compare wages between different sectors or industries, but only to resolve specific gender issues within a specific sector.

This is deliberate attempt to refocus the case in a direction far more likely to lead to a negative verdict.

The evidence is clear and irrefutable that early childhood educators are underpaid primarily due to the feminisation of the sector. On current figures, only 3% of the sector is male.

FWA’s decision that wages were unfairly low for reasons of gender in the social and community sector case was in the context of a sector that employs around 15-20% of men.

On the strength of that alone, the case seems relatively open and shut.

What the Government appears to be trying to do is direct FWA to not compare between the ECEC sector and more diversely-represented sectors (or even male-dominated sectors), as there can only be one conclusion drawn from those comparisons.

Sections of the sector have reacted negatively to the Government’s position. Kate Ellis, the Shadow Minister for Early Childhood, Child Care and Youth, said that “The Abbott Government said to educators time and time again, if you want a pay rise, take it to the Fair Work Commission. But educators never expected their own government would speak out against them getting the wage they deserve. This is nothing but a cruel deception and a tricky political game and the cost is borne on low paid workers.”

It is important to remember, however, that FWA is an entirely independent body and is not directed by the Government.

The Government undoubtedly would prefer that in the current political climate of a “budget emergency”, they are not left footing the bill for a wage increase that could be anywhere up to $2 billion.

The Government are trying to encourage FWA to shift the goalposts into a position more favourable to them – but that is no guarantee that it will happen.

A clear case can be made that a culture of undervaluing the work of women in our society has had the long-term impact of keeping the wages of professional educators and teachers in the ECEC sector artificially low.

All that remains is for that case to be forcefully made, and for FWA to hand down its decision.

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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.

Affordability the battleground for 2014

The June 2013 quarterly from the Department of Education on ECEC will be available later today [UPDATE: is now available here], and the political brawl of affordability has already begun according to Judith Ireland.

The Education Department’s June 2013 quarter report on childcare and early learning, released on Monday, shows the average fee, per hour, of long day care was $7.50 between April and June last year, when Labor was still in power – up from a $5 average in the September quarter of 2007, at the end of the Howard government.

”Childcare now costs the average parent about an extra $70 per week per child than it did before Labor took office – for the exact same number of hours,” Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley said. ”That’s extremely concerning.”

Sussan Ley and the Government are of course delighted with these figures and we will no doubt be hearing a lot of them over the next few months as the Productivity Commission does its work.

Kate Ellis has of course hit back at the claim, accusing the Government of being “sneaky” with the figures (but with no further details, at least in the media at the moment).

Labor raised the Child Care Rebate from 30% to 50%, and have always used this as their standard defence against political attack on this issue. It seems unlikely that this will work this time.

As Sam Page from Early Childhood Australia points out:

Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page said with wages making up about 80 per cent of long day care costs, wage increases over the six-year period would account for a ”fair proportion” of the cost change. But she said Labor had not adequately funded a 2012 national quality framework, that included reforms such as standardising child-to-staff ratios.

Labor’s failure to adequately prepare for the implementation of the National Quality Framework, and the resultant impact on operational costs for centres and therefore fees, is now reaping the obvious political dividends.

As I’ve written before, the National Quality Framework was a significant and critical reform that was carried out by Labor. But Ministers Kate Ellis and Peter Garrett both seemed completely oblivious to the broader landscape of ECEC.

Raising the CCR was supposed to be their cover for affordability and cost-of-living attacks from the then-Opposition. But as was inevitable, this encouraged a huge uptake in the usage of children’s services, long day care in particular. This pushed up waiting lists, particularly in the 0-2 age range, leading to regular media reports on inaccessibility.

The new qualification standards by themselves were always going to see fee increases for a sector that has always struggled to recruit and retain qualified staff. The signature failure of the NQF implementation was the seeming desire of the ALP Government to pretend there ever was a staffing problem (until in an election year it became politically convenient to finally realise). A funding and training package for this issue, that covered the entire sector, should have been rolled out in parallel with the NQF.

The ALP will spend 2014 being hit repeatedly over the head with the accessibility and affordability issue. They spent their time in Government pretending that quality wouldn’t cost anything. Will they spend their time in Opposition developing an early childhood education policy that can structurally address these issues?

The Government will of course continue their attacks – but this potentially leaves them with a very tricky problem.

Going on and on about affordability particularly rather implies that they think something should be done about it. At this stage they are refusing to commit to anything before the outcome of the Productivity Commission report.

But by raising this as a regular issue for the public, the Government will at some stage be held responsible for it. They will have to look at measures to improve affordability. But this Government is determined to be seen as economic conservatives – it seems unlikely that further increases to the CCR or CCB would be on the cards.

But what are their options? In their terms of reference the Productivity Commission has been instructed that any recommendations must be “within current funding parameters”.

This leaves the troubling conclusion that the only way to reduce fees for families is to roll back quality standards, particularly qualification requirements and ratios.

If that’s the case, we’re looking at the groundwork for that announcement today.

What is Labor’s legacy on ECEC?

New governments mean new ministers. For the ECEC sector, that’s Sussan Ley. She was previously Shadow Minister for Childcare and Early Learning, and is now the Assistant Minister for Education, with responsibility for childcare and early learning.

During the campaign, the Coalition released their childcare and early learning policy on the Thursday night before polling day. For this they were rightly criticised.

The policy itself includes a proposal to review and potentially pause some of the foundational requirements of Labor’s National Quality Framework reforms.

This has divided the sector. Some fear that quality standards will stall and potentially be turned back, while others support the review due to immense difficulties meeting Labor’s new requirements.

The review will be particularly welcomed by the for-profit operators in the sector, who extensively lobbied the Coalition in opposition to scale back the reforms.

It is therefore interesting to note that one of Ley’s first acts in her new role was to attend Child Care Queensland and Australian Childcare Alliance’s annual conference — two organisations that represent a significant part of the private sector.

The Coalition have also hinted that the two-year commitment to increase early childhood educator’s wages under Labor’s Early Years Quality Fund may not be honoured.

No more detail about the Government’s plans for the sector is forthcoming, so it seems worthwhile at this time to focus on the last six years and reflect on what Labor’s legacy on early education and care will be.

The statistics alone are significant — over a million children are now in some form of formal childcare. This can be attributed in large part to the increase of the Child Care Rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of out-of-pocket expenses, sparking a huge increase in enrolments.

Their signature legacy in this area will of course be the National Quality Framework (NQF). Agreed by COAG and introduced at the beginning of 2012, the NQF was a significant undertaking – bringing together diverse, uneven and outdated regulatory standards across the states and territories and unifying them under a single framework.

For the first time in Australia, there is now a single standard that every Long Day Care, School Age Care, Family Day Care and Preschool service have to meet — and be regularly assessed to ensure they are meeting it.

That it took this long for a minimum standard to be set for the wellbeing and safety of children in formal childcare was a national disgrace.

A last-minute measure to address the appallingly low wages for early childhood educators, the Early Years Quality Fund, proved to be divisive and inequitable, actually contributing to issues within the sector rather than solving them.

The Labor government did however commit to supporting a wage equity case at Fair Work Australia within two years, with a focus on gender being the primary cause of the low wages (similar to the Social and Community Services Award case).

Labor should be commended for convincing the Coalition State Governments to sign on to at COAG, but the implementation of the reforms have been patchy.

The structural issues facing the sector were, and are, huge. The only thing larger was the capacity of governments, Labor and Liberal, to cheerfully ignore them.

The collapse of ABC Learning in 2008 should have been the catalyst for the newly-installed Rudd government to address the inherent contradictions in having early learning and care for children farmed out to private operators, and then spending billions of dollars to families to subsidise families using those private businesses.

This recipe has created low wages and a lack of professional recognition for the educators who actually do the work, and has allowed the private for-profit sector to set the agenda on early learning.

Over 70 per cent of the sector is now privately operated, putting profits ahead of the benefit of children.

For-profit advocacy groups, such as the Australian Childcare Alliance, have successfully pushed the case with the then-Opposition Coalition Government that the sector is “drowning in red tape”, a blatant lie.

Instead of having the vision to tackle the for-profit operators, the Labor Government essentially continued on with business as usual, continuing to spend billions on rebates instead of investing directly into the sector.

Had it done so, the NQF could have been rolled out and implemented smoothly, protecting the scheme from being dismantled, the likely result under the Coalition.

The childcare sector as a whole was never going to be ready to implement even the beginning of the qualification requirements by 2014. As has been recently reported, organisations are having to seek qualified teachers overseas due to a systemic shortage of locals.

The NQF should have been accompanied with significant funding and support to the sector, and a long-term campaign to gain public support for the benefits of early childhood education.

The conversation should have been shifted from just workplace productivity or economic imperatives, but for the capacity for accessibly, high quality early learning to tackle disadvantage and inequity and invest in Australia’s future.

Labor has gifted the Coalition a major goal on childcare. Their failure to invest the necessary funding and support into the sector has allowed the Coalition to persuasively argue that the reforms are a burden, and are actually making things worse.

The NQF should have been the turning point the sector so badly needs. It should have fundamentally and permanently altered the national perspective on early childhood education in Australia.

But, as with so much of Labor’s time in government, this strong vision was hampered by an inability to actually implement the reforms on the ground.

Instead, it seems likely that for-profit advocacy and a new government happy to buy the line that the NQF is unnecessary bureaucracy will see the prospects for young children severely diminished.

Labor’s mismanagement of the NQF implementation may hamper our fight for recognition and structural reform for years. What a legacy.

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website on 26 September 2013.

Where does Rudd’s return leave ECEC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attention, fellow Stalinists! We’re rumbled!

Over the weekend, Judith Sloan posted a reasoned, referenced and thought-provoking article on the Catallaxy Files on the state of early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Australia.

Oh, no, sorry. She actually posted this.

Now I usually don’t work up the energy to respond to an individual piece on my chosen profession (most likely due to a lack of proper education from my second-rate university), but in this case I felt the need to address one or two of the points.

Apologies in advance for any typos or errors of fact – these must be expected of anyone as dim-witted as an early childhood teacher.

Sloan has appeared to have just noticed the Federal Government’s implementation of the National Quality Framework for ECEC. It did only commence in January 2012, so to have noticed its existence by June 2013 is a credit to Sloan and her undoubtably first-class tertiary education.

Sloan’s incisive analysis of the sector and its “dim-witted” Minister, Kate Ellis (possibly the worst insult: direct comparison to a politician), identifies rising costs and issues around the freezing of the Child Care Rebate.

But she holds off on the truly terrifying revelations until the next paragraph. Children of one of her relatives, she informs us (presumably visibly shuddering as she types) are sent home with a weekly newsletter, informing the innocent and fear-stricken families of what has happened at the centre that week.

Now, in centres I have worked at and managed I used to send out similar missives. I can only now apologise to those families, and indeed the nation at large, for this weekly campaign of terror. It is clear now that the positive feedback from families and sense of community that was generated by these updates was in fact a smokescreen, lies stammered from the mouths of mothers and fathers clearly suffering from the most recent onslaught.

Sloan then pounces on a quote from a Centre Director, caught out in what I can only assume was a moment of drunk pleasure after printing out that week’s newsletter, speaking about working to ensure “the consistency and quality of services provided to children and families across the country.”

Pointing out the very real and tangible similarities with a framework supporting children’s learning, health and safety and the worst excesses of Stalinist Russia, Sloan finally unravels the dark heart of childcare centres and preschools everywhere.

I can only for my part say that I would happily be doing more to indoctrinate the mindless future-socialists under my command, if only my second-rate education hadn’t left me with only the barest understanding of Socialism itself. It’s some kind of Facebook or something, right?

Now there are those of my colleagues who will speak about the importance of having a robust framework around the safety, wellbeing and learning of children in a sector where over a million children attend some form of early education and care.

Some of those colleagues might even foolishly (and confusingly) point towards recent events in Ireland, where a combination of loose regulation, low-paid and overworked staff have led to direct institutional harm to children.

I have even, shockingly, heard that early childhood teachers working with young children raise the quality of their learning and their potential future prospects. Often in the same breath as people telling me that targeted and play-based learning sets children up for future education, and is particularly needed for vulnerable children.

We can only own up now, and implement Sloan’s prescription of “greater choice, diversity and competition”.

After all, the ultimate expression of capitalism is farming out the education and wellbeing of children to the tender mercies of the free market.

What can possibly go wrong?

Win for Big Steps, but not quite the full victory

Providers would … have to agree to not increase their fees beyond operational costs, so as not to punish families.

“We know that quality early childhood education and care is dependent on having a qualified and professional workforce,” Mr Garrett said.

“We have listened to the sector and to parents and we are pleased to introduce this fund to help attract and retain qualified staff,” he said.

Simon Benson, Daily Telegraph (19/3/2013)

A qualified win for the Big Steps campaign.  $300 million for some of the sector is certainly less than the ask for professional wages for the whole sector.

But the important thing in this announcement is the Government’s acknowledgement that supporting educators is crucial to ensuring quality outcomes for children. This could be the starting point for much larger reforms.

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.

Private operators threat to EC Minister

Mr Mahony said the government’s reforms to the childcare sector had increased unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape, and increased costs. “Some of the changes are going to drive up costs to levels that will make affordability an absolutely huge problem for many families, and certainly for disadvantaged families,” he said.

Michael Owen, The Australian (25/2/2013)

It is important to remember here that the private-operator community, particularly those represented by people like Mr Mahoney, have little-to-no interest in quality learning and wellbeing outcomes for children. They are purely concerned with profit and scaling back regulations and quality to meet that end.