Labor’s ECEC policy blunts hard edges of Coalition’s plans, but fundamental reform still nowhere in sight

Mid-way into the endless 2016 election campaign, Labor has released the details of its early childhood education and care policies.

Continue reading “Labor’s ECEC policy blunts hard edges of Coalition’s plans, but fundamental reform still nowhere in sight”

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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.

EYQF ends, as it was always going to, in complete farce

Ending months of speculation, Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley today announced that the Government would seek to redirect $300 million committed to the Early Years Quality Fund into “professional development” for the entire sector.

“…this new programme will specifically target professional development opportunities that will provide improved access to childcare and early learning career paths for educators.

“This will in turn help retain staff in the sector and meet the improved education standards required under the National Quality Framework.

“This is shaping up to be the biggest public investment in professional development in the childcare sector’s history. I encourage all operators to recognise this once in a generation opportunity to improve the skills of some of our lowest paid workers.”

An ignoble end to an inequitable and hastily cobbled-together election year throw-of-the-dice.

I have advocated against this fund since it was first publicly announced in April. At the time, I stated:

I believe that this funding package has the potential to disastrously undermine the Early Childhood Education sector and the campaign for professional wages.

So here we find ourselves. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to be proved right.

An independent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers has slammed the Fund. This will undoubtedly be read by supporters of the fund as unfair and political.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have had an ongoing commitment to examining and reporting on the early childhood education and care sector, and have been overwhelmingly progressive. They even advocated to Government a “Gonski-style” funding model of ECEC, where children are funded at a base level and loadings are applied for children experiencing vulnerabilities.

Hardly a Conservative mouthpiece.

The report accuses the Government and United Voice of using the Fund as a thinly-veiled means to drive up union membership. Hardly a huge scandal that a Union would seek to increase its membership, but the use of taxpayer funds to do so is obviously of concern.

From my point of view, I believe that the Union have in the majority of cases acted in the best interests of some of the lowest-paid people in this country.

It is however, absolutely true that in some cases the “marketing” of the EYQF was handled badly by United Voice. PwC claim to have evidence of union delegates harassing services to become members, or they would not receive money from the Fund.

I will not give specific details, but I can confirm from my own experience that in some cases that absolutely did happen.

(Not, I hasten to add, in the ACT where the United Voice branch has always worked collaboratively and effectively with the ECEC workforce).

Some in the sector have raised the point that surely it’s good if more educators join the Union? Absolutely. But holding a bucket of money over their heads and essentially telling them “join us or you don’t get it” is immoral and disgusting behaviour.

The structural issues with the sector mean that Union membership is not going to follow the same trajectory as teachers, or nurses. The overwhelming influence of market forces, and a much lower level of community respect means that there is not going to be some huge upsurge in membership.

Particularly when a Labor Government announces a fund that will only to go to less than half of the sector, and is clearly aimed at keeping private operators out.

Not only that, but then splitting the fund into two buckets (at the very last minute) was an absolutely outrageous and incomprehensible decision. Making an already inequitable policy even more inequitable? That takes a level of political incompetence I can barely conceive of.

And this is the fundamental problem with the entire Fund, and why it was always going to end in this farce. No matter what the intention, no matter what the strategy, no matter what the “long-term plan”, funding only 40% of the sector was a despicable and grossly unfair policy decision.

At the centre of all these policy discussions are lowly-paid educators, the majority of whom will now be rightly furious. They have spend the last 7 months being systematically treated like fools, by Labor and Liberal politicians.

From my point of view (for what it’s worth), all of the contracts, conditional or otherwise, should have been honoured by Tony Abbott. That was the election commitment.

The Government will spend the money anyway, on some nebulous “professional development” fund. No further details, of course. I particularly like the notion that the Government would quite like those will be getting money through EYQF contracts to pay it back, pretty please. That should go extremely well.

I actually completely agree with taking the entire $300 million and spending it on the entire sector. It’s what should have been done in the first place.

But the new Government has demonstrated that, just as with the previous Government, they are prepared to play low politics with ECEC.

The focus now has to shift to the Productivity Commission Inquiry, and the Wage Equity Case.

Let the EYQF stand as a reminder to advocates for the sector to be careful what you wish for – and to remember that forgoing our principles of equity because a small bucket of money appears will always end as the Fund has ended today. In embarrassing farce.

Terms of reference should be sounding alarm bells

On Sunday November 17, the Federal Government formally launched and announced the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission’s  “Inquiry into Child Care and Early Childhood Learning”.

Throughout the Labor Government’s six-year term in office, the Coalition opposition regularly attacked their changes to the early childhood education and care (childcare) sector

Labor convinced all states and territories to sign up, through COAG, to the National Quality Framework (NQF) for early childhood education and care (ECEC). This was a significant achievement, and was an attempt to unify disparate and complicated state-based regulation and oversight.

The principle objectives of the NQF were a concern for the heavyweight players in the ECEC sector, the for-profit private operators. Lower staff-to-child ratios and higher qualification requirements for early childhood educators would directly eat in to their potential profits.

The Coalition gladly took up the banner for the private operators, running ridiculous lines on “the burden of red tape” and “the dead hand of Government regulation”.

For those who take early childhood education seriously, and not as an excuse to make a quick buck, the NQF has drastically streamlined and reduced regulation and paperwork.

This is clearly evident to those of us who managed services in the wildly divergent and complicated system of the National Childcare Accreditation Council, pre-2012.

As promised in the lead up to the 2013 Election, the newly elected Coalition Government will be tasking the Productivity Commission to look into the state of ECEC in Australia. It will report back in October 2014.

Despite assurances from the Government that they support the objectives of the NQF in regards to children’s learning, the Government’s stated intentions in the terms of reference should be ringing major alarm bells for families, educators and early childhood education advocates.

The terms of reference and scope of the inquiry clearly demonstrate that the Government is only viewing the ECEC sector through the very narrow and damaging prism of workforce participation and economic imperatives.

They state it clearly themselves: “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.”

The current Government longs for the days when “daycare” was provided by “nice old ladies” for the love of it.

With the greatest of respect to nice old ladies, those days are over.

Early childhood education and care is about more than a “safe, nurturing environment”. It is a place where children can learn and play socially and safely, developing the skills that will set them up for success in future learning.

Where early childhood education and early learning are mentioned at all in the Government’s announcement, it is far down the list on priorities.

To take a brief look at the section ‘the current and future need for childcare’, “hours parents work” ranks No. 1 on the list.

The “needs of vulnerable or at-risk children”? No. 11.

Could there be a clearer indication of this Government’s priorities?

The Government has also tasked the Productivity Commission to only offer recommendations “within current funding parameters”, effectively ruling out any increase in funding to the sector.

With a sector beset by wages and conditions that should be a national scandal, working with children at the most important stage of their development, this is unacceptable.

The Government’s repeated mantra on “red tape” is also a huge concern. Clear regulation and oversight is essential to the safety and wellbeing of children.

You need only look at systems in the United States and Ireland to see where a desire to not have “unnecessary bureaucracy” has directly endangered the safety, or even the lives, of children.

The inquiry will also be examining the ability of the ECEC sector to meet the “needs of today’s families and today’s economy”.

I am always interested in how it is the community who has to be more “flexible” to business interests.

I’m not sure where the Government’s entreaties to the business community to be more “flexible” to the needs of families are.

Yes, the growing amount of shift and casual work is undoubtedly causing issues for some families (although, as is always the case with this argument, no-one actually has any data to prove it).

But why do we automatically leap to the assumption that the community systems around that issue must change and adapt? Why is there not a national discussion on the business community’s role in supporting families?

The Government’s determination to work within the current market-based system is disappointing, but unsurprising. This was a key “win” for the Howard Government, turning over the education and wellbeing of Australia’s children to profiteering private operators.

The deference to market-based solutions to community and social issues is so stupid as to be hardly worth rebutting.

All that needs to be said is that if the market was capable of providing this “service” to the community in an adequate and cost-effective way, why on earth are there two generous and expensive subsidies available to families (the Child Care Benefit and the Child Care Rebate)?

The inquiry does have the potential to identify systemic issues with the sector, which advocates have been identifying for decades.

Any reasonable examination of the current structure of ECEC can only discover that it is fundamentally flawed. This could be extremely positive for the sector, as the Government can hardly ignore the report it asked for.

The Coalition (and even the Labor Government, who lacked the imagination to fundamentally shake-up the system) have always viewed turning the sector over to the private providers as positive.

It is entirely likely that the Productivity Commission will actually report that it was a huge error that has fundamentally disadvantaged children, families and the community for years.

There will already be a million eyes rolling as they read this, but the fundamental question needs to be asked. Do we want to live in an economy? Or do we want to live in a society?

So ECEC can increase workforce participation. Great. To what end?

This may come as a shock, but I don’t carry out my work as a teacher with children to incrementally increase Australia’s GDP output.

I can think of a number of reasons why ECEC is vital to our community: setting children up to succeed in school and life; lifting children and families out of generational vulnerability; closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Preparing children to be good little contributors to the economy is not high up on my list.

Sunday’s announcement needs to be a clarion call to arms for early childhood education advocates. The lines have been drawn.

Navigating partisans, politicians and dimwits: Advocacy, Australian-style!

It was a huge honour to be invited to speak at Community Child Care Co-operative’s 35th Birthday event, alongside such incredible early childhood “rockstars” as Alma Fleet, Eva Cox, Lisa Bryant, Anthony Semann and more. For those on Twitter, check out the hashtag #CCCCis35 to check out some of the incredible moments from the day.

The post below is my prepared presentation at the event – there were some minor changes on the day which reflected what I had heard and been inspired by in the previous presentations.

I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather today, the Cadigal People of the Eora Nation. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I call home and work from, the Ngunnawal People.

I’d like to wish Community Child Care Co-operative a very Happy 35th Birthday! It is a great honour to be invited by them to speak with you today. As CCCC has been such a positive and powerful force for advocacy in NSW and around Australia, to be invited to speak on that topic is somewhat nerve-wracking!

It is also a huge privilege to be speaking alongside such incredible educators, activists and leaders in the sector. I’ve worked with some of you professionally in the past, some of you I’ve followed through your writing, and some of you I’ve had long arguments with on Twitter.

It was particularly exciting to meet the wonderful Lisa Bryant (@lisajbryant) in person today, who has been a regular social media sparring partner! The early childhood community on social media is growing each day, which can only be a fantastic development.

The ability of social networking and online forums, such as Early Childhood Australia’s NQS Forum, are invaluable to the ongoing discussions, disagreements and arguments that will be shaping the future of our sector.

The late Christopher Hitchens once said that “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.”

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those in this room that I have spent valuable time “discussing” the finer points of early childhood policy with.

My talk today is focused on policy and politics – hopefully it will be a little more interesting than that sounds!

I set up my blog to explore the nexus between children, policy and politics – obviously particularly focused on the early childhood education and care sector.

As a sector, I don’t think we’ve successfully explored or acted in that space. With my usual arrogance and desire to hear my own voice, I figured I’d have a go.

This is not to denigrate the exceptional work of advocates and activists in this room, or advocacy organisations like CCCCNSW, who do incredible work.

But we need to acknowledge that our advocacy has not been as successful, or as strategic, as we need it to be.

Galling though it may be, we also need to acknowledge that the private operators do advocacy better.

They’re kicking our backsides. The Australian Childcare Alliance has a full-time lobbyist at Parliament House.

They’ve cultivated a close relationship with the new Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley. A close-enough relationship that there is a more-than-passing resemblance to each other’s press releases.

The political agenda on children’s early education in this country is shaped by that advocacy.

So I have worked to focus my advocacy on policy, and politics.

My drive for advocacy has grown as my career has grown. My first love is working directly with children, but my career has slowly moved me away from day-to-day work with them. First as a Centre Director, and now as the ACT Territory Manager for Goodstart Early Learning.

The face-to-face work with children is crucial, it’s everything – and I salute those of you here today who are still in those roles.

From the first time I took on a Director’s role, I felt a powerful responsibility to advocate for the work of those in my team who were doing that tricky and complex work every day as Team Leaders, or assistant educators.

For me, this started with the Big Steps campaign. Although Directors are certainly not paid enough for the work they do, I felt that the privilege of the higher pay-rate, the ability to manage my own time, the greater ability with which I could access professional development and networking opportunities, conferred on me an ethical responsibility to advocate.

This has been particularly clear to me in my current role as an Area Manager – particularly in the new world of the National Quality Framework.

The Framework ask a lot of Centre Directors – they are legally responsible for their centres, with all the pressures and challenges that entails.

Those of us in roles such as mine, without legislative responsibilities and with no direct day-to-day, ongoing work with children, are in what my Manager and professional mentor gleefully describes as “made-up jobs”.

I am not in the ECEC National Law. The Government has not deemed my job to be essential to the successful education and care of Australia’s children.

I’m going to assume there are people in similar positions in the room today – don’t worry, I won’t make you put your hands up!

What I would ask you to do is to reflect critically on your roles – my challenge to you is if you are not advocating tirelessly for those who are carrying out the day-to-day teaching and education with children, you are not doing your job.

I am fortunate to work with an incredible team of Centre Directors in the ACT, and I’d like to just acknowledge their professionalism and work in their communities of children, families and educators.

I reflect every day on the privileges that my “made-up” job entails me, and if I cannot justify my work to that group of incredible women at the end of the day – then it’s not worth me being there.

For me, this means that above and beyond my day-to-day work, of which advocacy is certainly a part, it also means advocating above and beyond my 38 hours a week.

Anything less I could not ethically justify.

My particular focus with advocacy is politics. Political advocacy has always been one of the most common, and most effective, forms of advocacy as it is targeted at those who actually make the decisions.

My interest in politics stemmed largely from growing up as a teenager in the Howard years. I don’t want to get into a big discussion around Right vs. Left, but those 11 years left a deep impression on me and many in my generation.

The issue that particularly engaged me was refugee policy.

It seemed incredible to me, as a naive sixteen-year old, that we could actually make laws and decisions that treated people so cruelly.

That women and men working comfortably in offices in one of the most prosperous nations on Earth could sign documents and make telephone calls that would directly imperil the lives of people fleeing persecution that I could not even imagine.

Now, being from Canberra for the last 15 years, it’s very easy to reduce politics to bureaucracy – to people passing paper around with little-to-no impact on the real lives of people.

Our politics and policies on refugees and asylum seekers helped me realise that politics and policy have a direct impact on every one of our lives, whether we know it or not.

Just as those decisions can directly impact people fleeing persecution from outside Australia, decisions made in Canberra have a direct and deep impact on the work we do, and the communities we do it in.

They are the frameworks we put around our society.

The connection with early childhood policy took a bit longer to come to me, but since then it has informed my work as a professional in this sector.

It particularly “clicked” for me when I came to a single, clear realisation about our work.

Children’s education and care policy in this country is not about children.

It is about workforce participation.

The childcare sector in Australia is entirely set up, resourced and funded to ensure that families are at work and contributing to the economy.  This fact informs every part of our sector, every challenge and every frustration.

Australia’s entire policy focus on early childhood education, on both sides of politics, Labor and Liberal, and even in far-left parties like the Green, has nothing to do with children.

This almost made sense in the 1970s, when getting women into the workforce wasn’t just a social and moral challenge, but a practical one.

Women with children were expected to remain at home.

The strides that have been made in gender equality since then are due in no small part to the creation of a formal, regulated and affordable childcare sector.

Greater numbers of women in the workplace have forced organisations to slowly (in some cases, extremely slowly) adapt to the 21st Century.

The childcare sector played a large role in that, and is overwhelmingly positive. But more than 40 years later, the paradigm needs to shift.

It’s no longer enough for us to accept that the early childhood education and care sector is just there to “babysit” children so their parents can contribute to the economy.

The latest figures from DEEWR tell us that for the first time in Australia’s history, over a million children are now in some form of ECEC. This is a staggering amount, and represents a major challenge for Australian society.

At the beginning of my talk I mentioned our friend Judith Sloan. It’s important to analyse her perspective on ECEC beyond her ridiculous comments about “dimwits”.

Her article points to the underlying tension of our work. The notion of universal access early childhood education for all children is a direct attack on conservative “family values”.

The conservative argument is essentially that the best place for a child, any child, is in a stable home with Mum and Dad (certainly not two Dads, or two Mums, but we’ll save that for another time).

I never attended childcare when I was a young child. I still did well in school, have a University degree (admittedly not from a Uni that would meet with Judith’s approval) and have a great job in a sector I love.

My parents had no degrees in early childhood education, but helped set my brother and I up to work hard in our studies (primary, secondary and tertiary) and in our work.

My story would provide “evidence” for conservatives that access to early childhood programs is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.

However, I was extremely fortunate to have two well-educated, stable and loving parents with no mental health issues or other vulnerabilities.

I was given every chance to be successful, even before I was in school.

But we are part of a society where not every child has those same opportunities. Some children will grow up in challenging and disruptive environments, where their parents are suffering immense challenges of their own.

Advocating for universal access to ECE is about ensuring that any child, no matter the circumstances of their home life, can be given the same head start I was given.

So I believe that we are getting near a crossroads – I would actually like us to be at that crossroads now, but unfortunately I think we’re a way off even from that.

Brain research consistently tells us that the first five years are absolutely crucial. Long-term studies like the Australian Early Development Index and the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children also point to those formative years as the building blocks for later life.

With a million children now accessing some form of childcare in those foundational five years, it is no longer good enough for our sector to just be about workforce participation.

We have the incredible opportunity to be improving children’s lives right here and now, and in so doing drastically lower their risk of experiencing vulnerability throughout the rest of their lives.

Children who struggle early will continue to struggle, and will find it harder to engage in formal learning and study, increasing the challenges they will face in employment and housing.

These foundational years all take place before children set foot in a school – and yet our entire education focus for children, from a policy and political perspective, only really begins in Year 1 of school.

So is Australia ready to leave behind the paradigm of workforce participation, and adopt a truly child-centred approach to ECEC?

Yes, the majority of states and territories have some form of funded preschool, but it’s telling that over the last 2-3 years of public debate around David Gonski’s school reforms, preschool and long day care was conspicuously absent.

I’ll be blunt – that our sector was not represented in those policy discussions points to a significant failure on our part, and the need to significantly raise our levels of advocacy.

This was our chance to raise our voices – the challenges we as a society will be helping children to face throughout their childhood years can, and MUST, be addressed in early childhood.

And yet, nothing.

I look at the recent election, and the only time early childhood education and care was mentioned was in terms of fees, waiting lists, planning permits and workforce participation.

Again, this represents a significant failure of our advocacy.

I’m sorry to be the person at the birthday party who brings the tone down, and I understand I won’t be getting many invites to other parties after today!

But if we are to take our advocacy leadership seriously, we need to acknowledge our challenge.

There are advocates in this room who have done incredible work, who have spoken and written and banged their fists on tables around the country. CCCC has done incredible work.

But despite all of that, we have not shifted majority opinion. We have not changed enough minds.

The debate in Australia, beyond these walls today, is not about universal access. It’s not about children’s rights. It’s not about the potential for ECEC to lift children out of structural disadvantage.

It’s about fees. It’s about freezing the CCR. It’s about “flexible opening hours”.

As leaders in our sector, and as advocates for children, we have to do better. It is unacceptable to do anything less.

We know the importance of what we do. We know the challenges, we know the structural inequities that stand in our way. It’s no use convincing the people in this room.

Our advocacy has to go beyond that.

We also know that if we are serious about improving outcomes for children; if we are serious about upholding children’s rights and their voice in our society; then we have to be the ones who are raising our voices.

If people aren’t listening, it’s our job to make them listen. Are we using every opportunity to raise the profile of our work, demonstrate our professionalism and inform people of our potential?

Are we creating opportunities to do those things?

So that is our challenge. I am not doing enough. None of us are.

Until we are having debates in cafes and offices around the best way to fund true universal access to early childhood education for children, we aren’t doing enough.

Until a journalist in a national, televised debate asks a candidate running for Prime Minister what their plans are to use ECEC to improve outcomes for children at a foundational level, we have not done enough.

Until the right of children to fully and freely participate in quality early learning programs is a national priority, and embracing that is a cornerstone of our education, family and health policies, we have not done enough.

So, enjoy the day and particularly enjoy the cocktail party tonight. Because tomorrow, we’ve got some work to do.

I’ve talked a lot about what we’re not getting right, despite the hard work of people in this room today. What are my thoughts on the next steps?

Above all, be fearless. Have arguments. Speak your truth.

Through my limited reach as a writer and participant on social media, I have forcefully and doggedly argued views that have infuriated and aggravated friends and colleagues.

A big one was the Early Years Quality Fund.

A fund that would only reach 40% of the sector, would only last two years and would be awarded on essentially a “first-come, first-served” basis?

This was a deeply flawed funding model, and in my view offensive to me, and those I work with.

I publicly stated that I could not ethically support this Fund, and criticised United Voice for agreeing to it.

In the lead-up to the election, I also publicly voiced my criticism of the Labor Government for their implementation of the National Quality Framework.

This was at a time when the sector was being encouraged to almost band together and cheerlead for Labor.

My firm belief is that the Labor Government categorically failed to implement the NQF in a way that would ensure its survival and growth.

It was a once-in-a-generation chance to change the conversation on Childcare. Labor didn’t do it well enough.

Overlaying the requirements of the National Quality Framework without a plan to address the structural inequities of the system, including the sexist discrimination of low wages, was always going to be problematic.

Are they to be commended for at least attempting? Yes, but I cannot and will not allow partisanship to silence criticism where it is due.

The case for early childhood education reform is a generally “progressive” issue. But this does not mean that advocates for early childhood should just support and “cheerlead” for Labor.

As has been shown all too clearly with refugee policy, Labor is in many ways only a progressive party by comparison with the Coalition.

To put it clearly, blindly supporting Labor without criticism as the only progressive party in town means that if you are, you are now supporting sending pregnant women legally seeking asylum to a tent in Papua New Guinea.

It amazed me the amount of my progressive friends and colleagues who had joined the campaign for Labor, who were suddenly quiet about the issue of asylum seekers after the PNG “solution”.

They had been extremely happy to loudly berate and criticise the Liberal Party, quite rightly, for their policies.

Labor supporters who had criticised the undermining of Julia Gillard by Kevin Rudd and his supporters, suddenly donning Kevin 13 shirts after a quick change-up in the Labor leadership team quite soon before an election.

If the price of joining up with a political party is silence, it is too high.

Advocates should be fearless and furious with criticism. Advocacy should be targeted at politicians, without being tied to a single party.

Advocacy should be about our sector, not political victories for others.

I don’t like to give advice, but I would urge my colleagues in advocacy to remember that.

The issues surrounding our sector – feminism, contested rights between children and parents, the role of education in the social good – demand that we be strategic and smart with our advocacy.

Tying ourselves to a political party or a political ideology is a bad idea.

Another bad idea is to paraphrase Mark Twain, but as he very nearly said: “Loyalty to progressing the early childhood education sector: ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”

Advocacy is not just writing, not just attending rallies or forums. The Early Years Learning Framework encourages educators and teachers to look at every moment with a child, or group of children, as an opportunity to learn.

In exactly the same way, every moment in our day-to-day work is an opportunity to advocate for our professionalism, and the professionalism of the sector as a whole.

Every time you greet a family at the door, we could be advocating. Every time we have a pedagogical discussion with an educator, we could be advocating.

But I firmly believe we also have an obligation, and imperative, to advocate at that wider level – at the level of policy.

The Italian pedagogue and President of Reggio Children Carla Rinaldi encourages advocates to be a “megaphone for children’s voices”.

Aim it at Parliament House.

What made you angry? What frustrated you? When was your voice silenced? What made you want to yell at the TV screen, or your computer?

Write about it. Get it out there. Contact your local MP.

But do not fall victim of the “us versus them”, or “Left vs. Right”, or “Labor vs. Liberal”. As soon as we subsume our advocacy to that of a political ideology, we are no longer advocating. We’re advertising.

It can seem like a huge and uphill battle when you look at where the national discussion now.

Imagine having an election fought on the principles of children’s human rights and the magnifying and uplifting power of early childhood education.

It seems like at the moment as a people we are more focused on having cheap, available childcare.

But, fellow advocates, just remember, as Jon Stewart said, “You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.”

Thank you very much.

Thanks again to Community Child Care Co-operative for inviting me to speak. You can check out their website at http://ccccnsw.org.au/.

EYQF conditional funding withdrawn

The new Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley, appears to have confirmed that conditional funding to increase wages under Labor’s Early Years Quality Fund will not be delivered.

The Education Department letter – obtained by The Australian – was sent on Friday, before the Abbott government’s month-long review reports on whether it can claw back $300 million allocated by Labor for pay rises in the industry, to compensate for its increased quality reforms.

Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley has set a deadline of the end of this month for the independent report.

“If your organisation has not yet implemented wage increases or otherwise has not yet fulfilled the conditions of the commonwealth’s offer of funding, that offer of funding is hereby revoked,” the letter says.

“Your organisation should do nothing further to commit itself to wage increases in the expectation that EYQF (Early Youth [sic] Quality Fund) funding will be made available for those wage increases.”

An inevitable result. I publicly attacked the EYQF when it was first announced, and have done so ever since. It was, and is, appalling public policy.

It is important, vitally important, to remember that advocacy for our sector should not be tied to a single campaign, a single announcement, or a single political party.

The EYQF was a political victory for United Voice, not for the sector.

It was a last-ditch and desperate attempt by the out-going Labor Government to attempt to wedge the Coalition on childcare issues.

If the then-Government had taken the issue of professional wages seriously, they had six years in Government to do something about it. A fund that would apply to 40% of the sector, announced at the eleventh hour, was a joke.

So now we have early childhood centres who have, in good faith, applied for funds under the EYQF who will miss out. Threats of a class action are just threats at this stage, and I can’t anticipate that anyone in the ECEC sector will have the funds to launch a long and expensive court case.

The ECEC sector should immediately dismiss the EYQF, and union members should strongly advocate that only a solution that applies to the entire sector, without strings, should ever be agreed to on their behalf again.

Roll on the Pay Equity case at Fair Work Australia.

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.

Seeking teachers overseas

ECEC organisations around Australia are seeking qualified teachers from overseas, according to news.com.au.

ACECQA will also invite selected universities and colleges in New Zealand, the UK and Ireland to apply to have their early childhood degrees, diplomas or certificates recognised in Australia.

The spokeswoman said 775 foreign childcare workers had applied to have their overseas qualifications recognised in 2012/13 – with 38 per cent from the UK and Ireland, and 22 per cent from New Zealand.

Only 412 applicants were approved, 73 were rejected, and the rest would be assessed this year.

Australian Childcare Alliance secretary Frank Cusmano, representing privately-owned childcare centres, said a shortage of university-trained teachers meant many centres would not be able to comply with new rules requiring them to employ one by January next year.

“There are a lot of exemptions that have been asked for, and received,” he said.

The qualification requirements, particularly around early childhood teachers, have been a source of contention across the sector.

You can read my thoughts on the requirements here. I am entirely supportive of having the highest qualified teachers working with our youngest children, but without targeted and funded support it is unachievable.

This will continue to be the case until teachers who choose to work in the early years are given the same respect, the same recognition and – yes – the same pay as every other teacher in this country.

What does the Coalition’s ECEC policy mean for the sector?

On the second-to-last day of the 2013 Election campaign, the Coalition announced their early childhood education and care policy: The Coalition’s Policy for Better Child Care and Early Learning.

Rather surprisingly, given Sussan Ley’s statements in The Australian, the Coalition will seek to pause many of the most important reforms of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care.

With regards to staffing ratios:

The Coalition will work with State and Territory governments to review the implementation
of staff to child ratios to assess whether their implementation can be slowed to give the
sector enough time to absorb the changes and ensure continuity of service.

The Coalition are also targeting the new qualification requirements:

Given the concerns of the child care sector, the Coalition supports a review of child care
qualifications. We will seek the cooperation of the States and Territories to pause the
requirement that all staff should be qualified until the Australian Children’s Education
Quality and Care Authority has undertaken a full review of early childhood qualifications.
Given the shortage of ECTs, the Coalition believes that it makes sense to put on hold the
requirement for centres with more than 25 children to employ an ECT. We will delay this
requirement until a full review has been undertaken, and in the meantime look at possible
ways to encourage more people, particularly in rural and regional areas where shortages
are most noticeable, to study early childhood teaching.

The reforms to educator-to-child ratios and qualification requirements are rightly held up as key improvements to the sector. Research and practical experience from around the world has shown that these are crucial to quality outcomes for children.

It is important to remember that as the NQF is a product of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), any changes to the Framework will require the support of the States and Territories (which is acknowledged in the policy document).

I will be honest – I am conflicted about this policy announcement. Anyone expecting instant disapproval and blind support for the Labor Government’s implementation of the NQF reforms had probably better stop reading now.

I am completely supportive of the reforms – I have argued publicly that they do not actually go far enough.

I also completely dismiss the talk of “administrative” problems and the burden of red tape that the Coalition speak of – strict, clear and enforceable regulations are absolutely essential to ensure children’s health and safety. To put it bluntly, any ECEC organisation that cannot handle the “regulatory burden” shouldn’t be in business.

But…

I am forced to conclude that as things currently stand, the Coalition is not wrong to suggest that aspects of the NQF are put on hold.

This is not to say that Tony Abbott’s approach to ECEC is correct. The Coalition have no plan to address the structural issues they have identified, and will palm everything off to a Productivity Commission enquiry.

But this was inevitable, and it is entirely the fault of the Labor Government – specifically Ministers Kate Ellis and Peter Garrett.

As I have written before, the ECEC sector as a whole was never going to be ready to implement even the beginning of the qualification requirements by 2014.

The Government has entirely failed to ensure that the NQF would be embedded and immune from this inevitable announcement by the Coalition.

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.

Instead, we got a “Early Childhood Workforce Strategy” – an insulting 22-page pamphlet (I refuse to call it a document) that would have been laughed out of any sector or industry that the Government actually took seriously.

Families received the odd brochure or postcard, buried under an avalanche of Government advertising detailing how much money they were spending on rebates.

A bizarre and divisive fund for professional wages was delivered at the last-minute, which has only served to deepen the divisions and frustrations of the sector.

The Government’s implementation approach to the NQF seemed to be tossing it to the sector, and then wandering off with a quick “let us know how you get on”. Even with two years to meet the initial qualification requirements in 2014, huge swathes of the sector were never going to get there.

The best analogy I can think of is like asking a straight-jacketed person to do the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – it was never going to go well.

Structural and foundational work needed to be done before these reforms could really flourish – the low wages and professional standing of the educators in the sector; the incompatibility of ECEC with for-profit providers; lack of targeted funding to support children and families with vulnerabilities, and the educators who work with them – just to name a few.

The straight-jacket holding the sector wasn’t removed – the Government didn’t even seem to notice that there were issues.

From that point of view, it is simple to argue that the reforms should be put on hold.

The Government has gifted the Coalition a major goal on ECEC. Their failure to invest the necessary funding and support into the sector has allowed the Coalition to persuasively argue that the reforms are not really that great and are actually making things worse.

As an advocate for the human right of each child in Australia to a quality education, and the potential power of our sector to raise children out of inequality and vulnerability, I am furious with the Government.

The National Quality Framework should have been the turning point the sector so badly needs. Many people reading this will cast me as now advocating against the reforms – to be clear, this is completely not the case.

Do I want to see the reforms to be slowed, or wound back? Absolutely not.

But there is little point in pushing ahead with the 2014 requirements that are simply impossible for the sector to meet. What is the point in having the requirements if half the sector is on waivers?

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

Survey: Families prioritise spending on ECEC over PPL

Goodstart Early Learning has released the results of a survey conducted throughout June that sought opinions from Australian families on the early childhood education and care sector.

Goodstart chief executive Julia Davison said paid parental leave was not the main driver when it came to women’s participation in work. “Access to affordable quality childcare needed to be the second big leg of work and family policy alongside paid parental leave,” Ms Davison said.

“International research cited in a recent report by the Grattan Institute suggests that government support for childcare has about double the impact on female workforce participation as spending on paid parental leave. We would like to see the next government prioritising new investment into early learning and childcare so that parents do not end up wearing the additional cost of the quality reforms.”

Ms Davison said new investment should be an additional term of reference for the Coalition’s proposed Productivity Commission review of the sector. “Our government’s education spending priorities of inadequate investment in children’s early years do not reflect the priorities of Australian families and run counter to international best practice and research,” she said.