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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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24/7 ECEC: Would you like an education with that?

Recent media reports have talked up the possibility of early learning centres remaining open late at night and on weekends to accommodate the needs of families, particularly those with shift-working parents.

As an educator, I instinctually find the idea of expanding operating hours problematic. We have fought long and hard to begin to be recognised as professional educators, not babysitters. That battle isn’t even over yet.

The Federal Government has been instrumental in changing viewpoints on the professionalism of the sector. We are referred to as “educators” in the new regulatory documents and learning frameworks. Spokespeople for the Government even remember to call us that rather than “workers” or “carers”. Most of the time.

To expand the sector to operate until late at night, and 7 days a week, would be a step back for that recognition.

It would entrench the view in society that we are purely a service for working families, with no educational role to play for children. Just like McDonalds is there to service your need for a Big Mac at 3am, early learning centres will become a service industry with a focus of care, not education.

Of course I am not in the position of working shifts, and nor is my wife, so we do not face the issues that those families face. Options for shift-worker families need to be explored, but I am convinced that simply expanding the ECEC sector is a bad idea.

Why don’t we expand school hours for shift-workers? Because as a society we have accepted limitations on what is offered. If the Government is serious about seeing ECEC as an educational environment for young children, and advocating that with Australian families, they also need to accept those limits.

A lot questions about an expansion would need to be answered, and hopefully they will be worked through in any future trials. My first few questions are:

  1. How will extra hours be regulated? Will centres still be under the NQF and the EYLF from 6pm – midnight, when children are asleep? Will there need to be an Early Childhood Teacher there? Or will the sector be split between regular hours (7.30am-6.00pm) and outside hours?
  2. Is this in best interests of children? How do children fit into any expansion of the sector? Is it beneficial to children to be in an ECEC centre at 11.00 at night?
  3. How will educators be paid? Will educators receive penalty rates for work after 6pm, or before 7pm? On weekends? If yes, how is this equitable with educators who work during the day?

There are undoubtedly many more. What are your questions?

This article was originally published on the Big Steps website.

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In defence of red tape

In July, Sussan Ley, the opposition spokesperson for Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, spoke out against the national quality reforms, calling it ‘over-regulation’ and pledging to reduce ‘red tape’ if the Coalition won government.

I was lucky to have a personal meeting with Ms Ley a few weeks ago, where she took the opportunity to deny that the Coalition were planning on rolling back any of the reforms. But it was also clear from that meeting that Ms 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. Ms Ley also seemed to have a dismissive or uninterested attitude to the Early Years Learning Framework.

The issue brings up a broader point about regulation of the ECEC sector. I have absolutely no doubt that Ms Ley could find any number of people who complain about over-regulation. I’ve certainly done enough of it myself.

In my two years as a Centre Director there were large amounts of paperwork, vast quantities of forms to sign and large volumes of strict regulation to strictly adhere to. It was easily the least favourite part of my job, and I took many and varied opportunities (as my wife, colleagues and people popping into the centre to ask for directions will attest) to rail against them.

But here’s the thing. They 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. In the centre I directed, that was 53 children a day. Most centres being opened these days are upwards of 100. That’s 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 wading through them). They are there to ensure 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 producing 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 misguided but frightening. With a low-paid and overworked sector receiving little professional recognition and leaving their work in droves, less regulation will encourage 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.

I would suggest to Ms Ley that she focus more on the ‘Early Childhood Learning’ part of her title instead of pandering to anyone’s complaining 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.

For everyone else, do what I did – learn to love the red tape: it’s there to support what we do, not drown us.

And for those days when it gets on top of you, I recommend a large glass of red wine.

This article was originally published on the Big Steps website.