Last week, the sector may have lost a powerful voice for advocacy

I’ve banged on about advocacy on this blog for years now. It’s crucial if we’re going to make any changes to the early childhood education (ECE) system for the benefit of children and their families.

We’re a fragmented and disjointed sector. We don’t have a clear and simple advocacy campaign that we’re all rallying around. There are competing priorities, different perspectives, and those who are in this sector not for the principles of children’s rights but to make a lot of money.

Which is why the actions this week of Australia’s largest not-for-profit early childhood education organisations, Goodstart Early Learning, are so disappointing.

Some context. The Senate is currently considering the Federal Government’s imaginatively-titled “Jobs for Families” package which will, among other things, slash access to ECE for the children that most need it. The entire thrust of the package is to position the sector as entirely about workforce participation for the parents of a child. It is a regressive and damaging package that should be fought.

Last week submissions closed to a Senate Committee inquiry into the package, and I was heartened to see some excellent submissions from sector leaders. I very much recommend checking out the submissions of Community Child-Care Co-operative, SDN Children’s Services, UNSW’s Social Policy Research Centre and Northside Community Service (which, to be fair, is my employer!).

All of these submissions clearly and fearlessly articulate the very real and serious concerns inherent in the Government’s proposed reforms. The sector is rightly challenging them.

So I was… let’s be diplomatic and use the word “surprised” – to see the headline on this press release from Goodstart Early Learning:

“Childcare reforms will boost the economy: report shows”

I’m going to have to skate right by the offensive use of the word childcare there, and throughout the release, as there are far too many other issues to address.

The press release refers to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) commissioned by Goodstart to analyse the Government’s proposed ECE reforms to determine the likely benefit to the economy and workforce productivity.

I’m going to have to break the myriad problems with the report, Goodstart’s media release, the resultant media, and what it says about who should be the Australian ECE leader in advocacy into several parts. Stick with me.

 

The PwC report -why?

Let’s start with a fundamental question – why did Goodstart commission this report at all? Seriously – I have no idea why. The report states:

Goodstart Early Learning commissioned PwC in September 2015 to model the economic impacts of the proposed CCS (Child Care Subsidy).

Goodstart, according to their site, provide ECEC to over 70,000 children around Australia. To their credit, they are a not-for-profit consortium that took over from the collapse of ABC Learning. But why are they in the business of modelling economic impacts of proposed packages? Goodstart’s role, the same as every other ECEC provider, is to support the learning and wellbeing of children. I am not an Early Childhood Teacher to support Australia’s workforce participation KPIs. I’ll be blunt – I don’t care.

The only aspects of the Government’s reforms that should interest Goodstart are how they will affect children, or the educators who work with them. I’d love for an ECEC organisation to ask a large, reputable company like PwC to model how many children are likely to miss out on ECEC as a result of these reforms and their parents’ deemed “contribution” to the economy – and how many of them will be children at risk.

Goodstart employs over 13,000 educators. Have they also paid for modelling to see how many will have to be shifted to part-time or casual work if the Government’s proposed six-hour block funding goes ahead?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services under the current Budget Based Funding model will be forced to transition to the “mainstream” funding model. According to SNAICC, most won’t be able to do so. Where is the report on how many Indigenous children will now not be able to access ECEC?

 

The report itself is useless

Having read the report – which was not easy given that it is not publicised on Goodstart’s website at all, for no reason that I can see – it’s also clear that it’s out-of-date and does not look at parts of the reform package that will have the most impact on children.

This is from the last page of the report:

The activity test and subsidy cap aspects of the Child Care Subsidy have not been considered in this analysis. Adjustments to the proposed Child Care Subsidy that were announced in late 2015, including a lower subsidy level at higher income thresholds, were also not included in this analysis.

I actually can’t come up with a diplomatic way to say this. This is insanity. The activity test is a cornerstone of the Government’s reforms, and will have the most significant impact on children, particularly those most at-risk. For it not to be included in the analysis is incredible. Was PwC specifically asked to not include it? That would be very worrying.

The actual projections on enhanced workforce participation seem to be a combination of vague guesses and a wildly optimistic interpretation of the outcome of the planned reforms.

In a broad sense, the report does not take into account any of the changes made to the package in November 2015. So basically, the report was out-dated well before it was released.

 

How the report was used

The report was a gift to the Government.

The Government is fighting hard to get their reforms through, despite opposition from some players in the sector and peak welfare advocacy groups. This report, commissioned by Australia’s biggest player in ECEC, is a complete win for them. Indeed, it was referred to several times in Parliament last week, including by the Prime Minister:

So we welcome today’s independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It projects the equivalent of 20,000 full-time workers will join the workforce as a result of the government’s new childcare subsidy. I quote the Goodstart Early Learning CEO, Julia Davison, who commissioned the report. She said:

“The Jobs for Families childcare package will deliver a significant economic gain for our nation by making returning to work more attractive for parents.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, 4 February 2016

The report also did the rounds in the media, and it’s headline figures of adding “the equivalent of nearly 20,000 full time workers to the labour force and $3.1 billion to national GDP by 2020” was pretty much taken at face value.

Goodstart’s media release on the issue is shocking in its complete focus on the economic and workforce implications of this report, and complete disregard for how the reforms they’ve asked to be analysed will directly and adversely affect children – who are, apparently, central to everything Goodstart does.

 

What does this mean for advocacy?

Call me alarmist (you won’t be the first), but this is getting into dangerous territory. The commissioning of the report, and subsequent media release, looks like nothing more than a Government media strategy. It’s the Government’s job to sell the economic implications of this package. Good luck to them. For Goodstart to get into this on their behalf is bad for the sector, and – frankly – embarrassing for Goodstart.

Read the media release again. Pretend the Goodstart branding isn’t on there. After reading it, would you even know that the organisation that put this release out worked in ECEC?

I expect more from Goodstart, as Australia’s largest NFP ECEC organisation. They expect more of themselves – as they themselves state.

The real kicker for me is this paragraph, the only time children even get a mention.

Improving access to affordable quality childcare supports increased workforce participation not just in the short term, but in the long term because more children starting school ready to learn will mean more Australians entering the workforce ready to work.

So apparently the endgame here is more happily productive workforce participation units. Vale, the wonder of childhood. Time to get ready to work.

 

This has been a long and rambling piece, but it’s important. The Government’s proposed reform package are disastrous for children and their families. I am not alone in thinking that. For one of the biggest players to become Government spokespeople on this issue is an incredible abdication of responsibility.

I can only guess at Goodstart’s motives here. Genuine interest in the economic implications? If so, that’s ridiculous. A desire to be “on good terms” with the Turnbull government, to be “inside the tent” as it were?

The Government has spokespeople. It has economic modelling. You know what Australian ECEC desperately needs but doesn’t have? More powerful, irrefutable voices of advocacy which will stand up to poor policy on behalf of children.

It seems like over the last week, Goodstart has vacated the field. What a shame.