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?

New report card released on children’s wellbeing in Australia

Board member, lawyer and Yuin man, Tim Goodwin, spoke about the implications of this [ARACY] Report Card for our Indigenous people, noting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are doing worse than average on 100% of the indicators. Mr Goodwin drew a moving connection between this Report Card and the narratives we Australians can pass on to the next generations, beseeching the audience, “Let’s write a new story, to read a new story to our children”.

Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (25/3/2013)

The launch of this updated Report Card on the Wellbeing of Young Australians shows that we still have a lot of work to do on improving opportunities for our children, particularly our Indigenous children.

Labor MP Andrew Leigh also makes the sound point that programs and intervention need to be evidence-based, and not rooted in ideology.

Why ECEC is not over-regulated

Kids banned from blowing out candles on birthday cakes. Centres fined $50,000 for changing two nappies at the same time. Centres closing under the weight of bureaucracy — is overregulation the biggest threat to early childhood education? Only if you listen to the tabloids.

In 2007, the Labor Government set the goal of raising standards in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) Centres. This led to the 2012 launch of the National Quality Framework (NQF), a package of reforms to the sector that included new qualification requirements for educators, lowering of ratios in some states and territories, and a new national oversight body — the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. The reforms are to be rolled out in stages until 2020.

The majority of community not-for-profit providers have enthusiastically backed the NQF reforms, citing international research that stresses the long-term importance of targeted and quality early learning programs, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Private operators have bitterly opposed the reforms, citing the need to raise fees for families and the burdensome nature of the new regulations. In South Australia, some have threatened to mobilise families in Early Childhood and Childcare Minister Kate Ellis’ electorate.

Sussan Ley, the opposition spokesperson for childcare and early childhood learning, has regularly spoken out against the Government’s reforms, calling them “over-regulation” and pledging to reduce “red tape” if the Coalition wins government. This has of course been gleefully taken up by a right-wing press eager to attribute the “dead hand of government regulation” to anything that sits still long enough.

I was lucky to have a personal meeting with Ley in 2012 where she took the opportunity to deny that the Coalition was planning on rolling back the NQF reforms. But it was also clear from that meeting that Ley and the Opposition are focused purely on addressing knee-jerk reactions from the sector on regulations, rather than actually engaging with any of the deeper issues. She also seemed dismissive of the Early Years Learning Framework, the early learning guide for early childhood teachers and educators.

I have absolutely no doubt that Ley could find any number of people who complain about over-regulation. I’ve certainly done enough of it myself.

In my role as a centre director there are volumes of strict regulation that must be adhered to — not to mention the paperwork. But they are are absolutely essential.

In ECEC centres, as well as being responsible for their ongoing education and learning, we are legally responsible for the care and wellbeing of children. Most centres being opened these days are licenced for upwards of 100 children per day.

Somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter. Being entrusted into the legal protection of someone else.

Regulation is not there to make people’s lives a living hell (although I may disagree after a couple of hours of filling out forms). They are there to mark a standard, and ensure that that standard is met.

ECEC centres, like everything else in this society, are human enterprises. Just like every other sector and profession, some centres will be great, some will not be so great. When you’re dealing with young children, we cannot allow the not-so-great centres to remain that way.

I can handle a bakery baking some low quality muffins due to a lack of regulation. I can’t handle the centre my daughter attends providing children low quality education and care and possibly endangering their safety.

It is easy, too easy, to simply claim that red tape and bureaucracy hold enterprising and innovative people back. Regulation in ECEC is a safety net for children and families that ensures centres have to meet a certain standard.

The idea of “rolling back” regulations is not only simplistic and misguided, but frightening.

With a low paid and overworked sector receiving little professional recognition and leaving their work in droves, less regulation will result in more incidents with children’s health and safety.

To put it bluntly, any ECEC service or director that cannot handle the regulatory burden shouldn’t be in business. As someone with 10 years experience in the sector, I find the new regulations far clearer, understandable and supportive.

One of the goals of the NQF reforms was to remove unnecessary bureaucracy, particularly at the state and territory level, and create a single set of national regulations. To a huge extent, this has happened.

The Opposition and media have delighted in pointing out obscure regulations as evidence of the “nanny-state”. That said, the Opposition would be the first to cry foul and insist on inquiries and investigations into any potential serious incidents in an ECEC centre.

I would suggest to Ley that she focus more on the “Early Childhood Learning” part of her title instead of pandering to complaints about over-regulation. The lowering of ratios and raising of qualification standards that are part of the National Quality Framework are integral to lasting quality in the sector.

The reforms of the NQF are a step in the right direction, and need to be steadily built upon and expanded. Rolling them back would not only be disastrous for the sector and for children, but would directly put children at risk of harm.

This story was originally published on the New Matilda website.