Government announce inquiry into evidence base for early childhood and school

More than two years since its large-scale look into the structure and implementation of early childhood education and care funding, the Productivity Commission will be dipping its toe back into the sector. Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced on Friday that:

Starting today, the inquiry will examine the current information available in early childhood education and schooling and make recommendations about how to improve the evidence on which future government action is based.

The announcement was somewhat out of left field, and beyond the usual statements around the importance of data and research it’s unclear exactly why this inquiry has been commissioned.

The focus on ECEC is welcome though, and somewhat at odds with a Government that has consistently rolled back language to more old-school terms like childcare.

The Terms of Reference are up on the Productivity Commission website, and state that:

Improved access and greater ability to link and analyse national data could enhance the quality and scope of national education evidence that can be used to monitor educational outcomes and inform policy development and evaluation.

The scope of the Inquiry seems to be focused on how data can be better collected and then shared between Government agencies. Data collection in ECEC is fairly patchy, and not really focused on learning outcomes. It will be interesting to see what the Commission recommends in this area.

The inquiry is due to report back by December – after the next election. Consultation processes are yet to be announced.

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Australian childcare doesn’t need a “nanny state”, what it needs is a system that works

According to leaks from the Productivity Commission’s forthcoming draft report into Child Care and Early Learning, published by The Australian, it appears that the Commission will be recommending streamlining the two current childcare subsidies (the Child Care Benefit and the Child Care Rebate) into one payment, means-testing it to some extent, and allowing the rebate to cover the employment of nannies.

The ability to claim rebates or tax deductions for nannies has been a long-standing political football in Australia. The issue appeared to be dormant for quite some time during the previous Labor government as they worked on strengthening the existing formal childcare system through their ambitious National Quality Framework.

Labor’s decision early on in its first term to raise the Child Care Rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent laid the groundwork for the issue to return many years later. Attendance in formal childcare skyrocketed, and currently sits at over 1 million children accessing some form of education and care service (primarily long day care).

This created fresh issues of both affordability and accessibility, which the then-opposition and now Government has consistently used to attack the ALP. This reached its peak during the 2013 election, with calls for nannies to be tax deductible. Abbott briefly flirted with the idea before handballing it to the Productivity Commission.

The issues surrounding subsidising the use of nannies are more complex than they initially appear. In some key areas, particularly metro Sydney and Melbourne, Australia does face an accessibility problem. Making it easier to employ an in-home nanny would seem like a relatively simple policy decision to address that.

But as is so often the case with Australia’s childcare sector, this would be a short-term bandaid solution that would do nothing to resolve the fundamental problems facing the community on this issue.

Even with a rebate, nannies would still inevitably be the privilege of the well-off. This is an issue in a country rooted in egalitarian principles – even when those principles bend and flex in the appropriate political climate.

But the biggest issue would be the equating of a home nanny with the formal education and care sector. Having both essentially under the same system devalues the hard work, education and commitment of Australia’s early learning teachers and educators.

Equating the teaching that now takes place under the National Quality Framework, which requires more qualified staff and higher standards of early learning provision, with the household duties of a nanny is a dangerous precedent to set.

Around the world, more and more countries and governments are recognising the need for investment in and strengthening of their childcare and preschool sectors. US president Barack Obama has made it a key policy for his second term, while a dramatic expansion of the UK childcare sector will be a major election issue in that country next year.

The Abbott Government’s instruction to the Productivity Commission in its terms of reference clearly outlined that no extra funding of the sector would be made available. In global terms, this is a backwards and out-of-step restriction given that investment in early education is now seen as one of the most positive economic and social investments a government can make.

Extending the rebate to nannies is particularly concerning in this context, as the funding for it will have to come from existing budgeted funds currently committed to the childcare sector.

The main problem with “the nanny issue” is that the issue is not really about nannies at all.

Australia’s childcare sector is under-funded, fragmented and largely out of the control of the Government since the deregulation policies of the 1990s. The issues of accessibility and affordability directly stem from this.

The solution is not to hire nannies, but to properly review the current system and then invest in creating a modern and internationally-respected childcare sector that meets the needs of children and families.

Australian childcare doesn’t need a “nanny state”. What it needs is a system that works.

This article was originally published on the ABC’s The Drum website.

Where will the Government be heading on early childhood education?

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The due date for submissions to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Childcare and Early Learning has now passed, and the Commission now begins the process of preparing a draft report for the Federal Government. This draft report will be available in early July.

It is worth discussing the likely paths that the Federal Government will take when the Commission delivers its final report at the end of October.

The National Quality Framework (NQF) was a national push to set baseline standards for children’s education and care. It was a Federal Labor initiative but was signed up to, and continues to be implemented by, State and Territory Governments of both sides of politics.

It set significant new standards for qualification requirements, ratios and supporting children’s learning to be phased in between 2012 and 2020.

Despite some showing some limited support during the 2013 election campaign, the Government has generally attacked the quality reforms as being an unnecessary regulatory burden and described centres as drowning “in a sea of red tape”.

The Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley has directly linked the implementation of the NQF to a sharp increase in fees for families.

The biggest political issue in the children’s education and care sector is affordability. Between June 2012 and June 2013 there was a 45c rise in the average hourly fee for children’s services in Australia, on top of similar increases in the preceding years.

When in Opposition, the Coalition used the fee increases to consistently attack the Labor Government.

It is clear from the most recent data that the out-of-pocket spend for families remained at a relatively low level of 8-9% of total income across all income brackets, due to Labor’s increase in the Child Care Rebate from 30% to 50%.

But due in part the byzantine nature of the subsidy system and an effective political campaign of negativity from the Opposition, the narrative on runaway fee increases struck a chord with families.

The Coalition has strived to continue that narrative in Government, firmly placing the current issues of affordability onto the Labor Party.

The Government will surely be aware however that this will only work for a short period of time. Politically, this issue will soon be owned solely by them.

The Government has so far resisted committing to any specifics on changes to the childcare sector, stating that they are waiting for the Productivity Commission to provide their final report.

But when it comes, the Government will need to provide a clear and detailed response to the issues facing the sector.

The key funding lever for the Government is the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate subsidies (both introduced by the Howard Government).

They may seem completely unconnected, but recent refusals by the Government to provide industry assistance to Holden and SPC Ardmona may actually provide us with some insight into their thinking on the CCB/CCR subsidy.

The decision to deny assistance packages to those companies has demonstrated that the Government is prepared to make tough decisions on spending taxpayer money to support businesses.

The childcare sector is currently a majority private enterprise, with private operators making over two-thirds of the sector. The rest are run as not-for-profit community services.

The CCB/CCR subsidy essentially acts as indirect industry assistance to the operators of children’s services. Approximately $5 billion a year is spent on that subsidy – a not insignificant amount of money. Is it possible that the Government would consider lowering that amount of subsidy?

This would come at a huge political cost. In the June quarter 2013 over 742,000 families accessed some form of formal childcare.

Having spent their time drawing attention to the affordability issue as a political weapon, the onus is now on the Government to take steps to address it.

To complicate matters, they have instructed the Productivity Commission that any suggestions they put forward must be within “current funding parameters”. This leaves them with only a few options.

Either the CCB/CCR subsidy is lowered, a politically “courageous” decision as Sir Humphrey might put it, or the quality standards currently being implemented by the National Quality Framework are drastically rolled back.

Given the political considerations, the second option is far more likely. Which puts a lot of the Government’s statements in the media into context.

The focus on “over-regulation” and “red tape” in the media since the implementation on the NQF, and its intense focus over recent weeks, can be seen as laying groundwork for a large-scale downgrading of those reforms.

They can be sold not as a cut on quality outcomes for children, but as a cut on red tape.

This would be a disastrous outcome for Australia’s children. Advocates for quality education and care have stressed the importance of taking early learning seriously as in investment in Australia’s future prosperity.

It would be shame indeed if political expediency hampers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Productivity Commission Inquiry to recommend sweeping structural reforms to quality and affordability – without choosing one over the other.

Imagine: a vision for early childhood education in Australia

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Submissions to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Childcare and Early Learning have now closed. The public submissions currently available are a mixed bag – calls for quality reform balanced by companies advertising their products, individuals saying that Mums should just stay at home with their kids and many pushes to extend subsidies to nannies.

But if you only read one submission, make it the incredible submission from Community Child Care Co-Operative NSW.

Simply titled “Imagine”, it takes the audacious strategy of challenging the terms of reference of the inquiry and asking the Commission to instead consider child-focused reforms.

No family in Australia is told that there is no place for their child in a school, and neither should they be told that there is no place for their child in an early education and care service.

As well as succinctly analysing the current structural issues facing the sector, the submission articulates clear steps forward to resolve them.

Critically, it directly challenges the market-based model that now dominates the sector. This is significant and necessary advocacy from CCCCNSW.

This is a must-read for anyone in the ECEC sector.

Terms of reference out for Productivity Commission inquiry

The Federal Government today formally announced the “terms of reference” and scope for next year’s Productivity Commission into “Child Care and Early Childhood Learning”.

The Government is delivering on its priority commitment to task the Productivity Commission with an inquiry into how the child care system can be made more flexible, affordable and accessible.

The Inquiry will identify how the current system can be improved to make it more responsive to the needs of parents.

We want to ensure that Australia has a system that provides a safe, nurturing environment for children, but which also meets the working needs of families.

Our child care system should be responsive to the needs of today’s families and today’s economy, not the five-day 9am-5pm working week of last century.

I’ll have a longer article up on this later this week, but this should be sounding alarm bells for all advocates for early childhood education.

The announcement makes clear that workforce participation and economic imperatives are the focus for this Government.

The sector will need to be putting up some strategic and sustained advocacy in the face of this.

Greens to push for new inquiry into ECEC

Ms Hanson-Young said the government could no longer ignore child care, which is shaping up to become a key election issue.

”The Labor government can’t continue to pretend that nothing needs to be done,” she said. ”The sector needs proper funding reform if it is to lift quality standards and meet the needs of families.”

A national survey of 230 child-care centres conducted by the Greens in January found that fees were increasing while availability was declining in a number of areas.

Rachel Browne, SMH (12/3/2013)

An inquiry into the funding of ECEC could potentially be very positive for the sector and for children. The current funding model is heavily weighted in favour of profiteering private operators and makes raising quality standards very difficult.

But history tells us that the inquiry would likely focus on waiting lists, fees and workforce participation rather than the best interests of children.