The importance of early education

There’s still resistance [to the NQF changes] from some in the sector, mainly private operators who complain about costs and the timetable for change. They say the changes are ”too much, too soon” and that the cost of complying with the new standards has pushed up childcare fees.

Yet failing to provide qualified teachers would be unthinkable at any other level of schooling. When young children start school, parents know their child will be taught by university-trained teachers who are required to continually update their skills through ongoing professional development.

Until the national framework’s introduction at the beginning of last year, there was no such requirement for our youngest children. Yet, as years of brain research have shown, children’s ability to perform in the first years of primary school depends on the experiences and learning acquired from birth.

Maxine McKew, The Age (24/2/13)

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Wage disparity between ECTs in ECEC and Government Preschools

Only hairdressers, animal trainers and supermarket checkout operators earn less than childcare workers, according to the latest Bureau of Statistics figures. Full-time childcare workers earn $811.40 a week, compared with the average full-time weekly earnings of $1122.60, forcing many to take on second jobs to make ends meet.

Cosima Marriner SMH (24/2/13)

Less tinkering needed, more consideration to a “root-and-branch” overhaul of ECEC

The current funding model – a John Howard special – removed the direct funding of services entirely from the system, replacing it with standardised fee subsidies for parents.

The rhetoric is straight economics 101: parents are the best judges of the quality of care so they will choose the right services. They are assumed to be able to compare prices, hours, quality, like choosing a Laundromat, and be ready to move the child if there is a better local offer. The model assumed a level playing field between consumer and provider but a perennial shortage of care in most areas put the power into the providers hands.

“Child’s play: Coalition childcare inquiry doesn’t go far enough”, Eva Cox (The Conversation)

Early childhood education is not just about families

The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Childcare and Early Childhood Learning Sussan Ley this weekannounced the terms of reference for a Productivity Commission inquiry into Australia’s early education and care sector.

As expected, the focus is entirely on affordability, flexibility and workforce participation. In the two-page document, there is one reference to early learning outcomes for the 992,520 identified children in an early education and care centre.

I’m not exactly sure why the Shadow Minister bothers to have “Early Childhood Learning” in her title, as it is clearly of little or no interest to her or the Coalition.

The Coalition is barking up the same tree that governments (including the current Labor Government) have continued to bark up for the entire history of the sector.

“What is the impact on families? What is the impact on the economy? What is the impact on workforce participation?”

With nearly one million children accessing early education and care, we should ask a seemingly obvious question: what is the impact on children?

The Labor Government has at least put forward a National Quality Agenda to provide a focus of educational outcomes for children. But without addressing the structural problems of the sector, these will struggle to be anything more than token gestures.

Both sides of politics have failed to reach for an early education vision beyond fees, waiting lists and productivity.

The Coalition would roll back regulations at the first opportunity, creating the environment for more disturbing incidents in services, such as a case of alleged torturein Queensland.

The Labor Government failed to take the opportunity presented by the collapse of ABCLearning in 2008 to fundamentally repudiate the for-profit model of providing education and care to young children and take overall responsibility for the sector.

Research from around the world has repeatedly proven the importance of giving children access to quality, play-based learning and educational experiences in the first five years of their life — and not just 15 to 20 hours of preschool a week. Over 90 per cent of a child’s brain is developed in the first five years, before they even set foot in a school. If the Prime Minister is serious in her challenge of placing Australia’s education system being in the world’s top five, early education cannot continue to be ignored.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children has also revealed the exponential benefits of early learning in educational and social outcomes in later life. The investment we make in early intervention and equity for all children right at their start of their lives can be repaid many, many times over in their futures.

And yet as a community, we cannot make up our minds about what we want the sector to be.

Early learning advocates have a vision for the sector as a free-to-access, universal model that can be accessed by all children in our community. The possibilities of lifting children out of inequality and vulnerability are limitless.

The other side is those entirely see the sector as just “care”, essentially organised babysitting. This view is one of individualism, that the education and care of children is the responsibility of the child’s parents. In this model, centres can be all-but-unregulated, no qualifications are required and private operators can make as much money as they want.

This is the choice that Australia, as a community, needs to make. It cannot work both ways, but the Labor Government is currently attempting to do both.

Labor speaks of educational outcomes and quality environments for children, but will not undertake the sweeping structural reforms necessary to actually achieve that. Simply adding new requirements on to already strained, underpaid and undervalued early childhood teachers and educators simply will not work.

With the released terms of reference for their planned inquiry, the Coalition is clearly signaling that they have no interest in early education and are purely focused on the short-term economic and political goals.

So much for the nearly one million children in an early education and care service today.

The early childhood education and care sector in Australia is being pulled in two vastly different directions right now, and it cannot continue. A simple choice needs to be made.

Remove all educational requirements from the sector, and just be basic “childcare”. No qualifications required, limited regulation, minimum-wage for the workers and available only to those who can afford the fees.

Or, reform the entire sector so that educational, learning and social outcomes can be effectively set and met. This would require a large investment, but the benefits are far beyond that initial investment. The Government is already committing large amounts of money to the sector, but indirectly (through rebates to families) in a way that gives them no control over where the sector is heading.

Individuals will always complain about their taxes going to things they don’t like, but the community as whole benefits when we support individuals to achieve their potential.

Both sides of politics need to lay their cards on the table. Trying to do both will not work.

But it must address the question that no-one wants to answer in these inquiries. What is in the best interests of the nearly one million children that this will affect?

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website.

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.

Canberra takes Big Steps for ECEC educators

This Saturday, November 17, teachers, educators, families and children are coming together in a show of support for Canberra’s early childhood education and care workforce.

Big Steps Day is taking place around Australia in support of the campaign for professional wages in the early childhood sector. As well as being a fun family day out with food and entertainment, it has another important purpose.

This year saw the beginning of the National Quality Agenda – a Government framework to improve quality outcomes for children in childcare centres through lower ratios and higher qualification requirements.

However, the starting wage for an early childhood educator is just over $18 an hour.

This, on top of lengthy and ever-changing shifts to meet opening hours and difficulties meeting staffing requirements, has led to an incredible 180 educators leaving the sector every week.

The lack of recognition of the work educators do now no longer affects just the educators themselves. Staff turnover and recruitment challenges for organisations are having a direct and lasting impact on Canberra’s children and families.

Research has shown that the first five years of a child’s life set the scene for the rest of their development – the fastest amount of brain growth and “wiring for learning” occurs before they even set foot in a school.

Early childhood educators are no longer just babysitters. They play a key role in supporting children’s learning, through observations, planned experiences and play.

With a national conversation continuing around the shape of Australia’s education system into the future, and a vision from the Prime Minister that we are in the Top 5 in the world when it comes to education, it is impossible to ignore the early years.

But with a system that is driving educators away and a lack of community recognition for the hard work that goes into every day working with young children, we will not be able to achieve the goal of having equitable access to education for all of our children.

As well as encouraging a lifelong love of learning and providing children opportunities to become aware and engaged citizens, early childhood education and care is fundamental to a great deal of Canberra families.

It’s clear from Canberran waiting list times, particularly infant spaces, that the current system is not meeting the needs of our community. Simply opening new centres (as promised by the ACT Government) will not solve this issue if the mass exodus of educators continues. The ACT faces the very real risk of a spate of centre closures in the next few years.

So I urge all Canberrans to head into Garema Place on Saturday at 11am and support the hard-working and under-appreciated early childhood educators who hold so much of the promise of future generations in their hands.

This article was originally published on the City News website.