Will the ghost of the EYQF continue to haunt the Government?

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The Coalition Government has found much to fault the previous Labor Government for, not least in its handling of early childhood education and care.

They’ve managed a tepid and limp hand clap for the creation and implementation of the National Quality Framework, which provides a national minimum standard for this work for the very first time.

Services are however, apparently “drowning in red tape” and quaking in fear from the “dead hand of government regulation”. The way the Coalition tells it, the last six years in ECEC have basically been a horror movie that the public has at last been able to walk out on.

Labor, those socialist fiends, have apparently just been throwing money at problems plaguing the sector – which presumably means that services are drowning in both red tape and money. A weird way to go.

But it appears that nothing has made the now grown-up and serious Government more disappointed than the handling of the Early Years Quality Fund.

“It was unfair,” they cried. “It was inequitable!” they wailed. “It was a lot of money we’d rather not spend on educators!” they murmured quietly on their way back to their offices.

Now, to be fair, it was unfair and it was inequitable. Please see previous blog rants for anything more on that.

But it placed the Government in the tricky position of trying to tight-walk between their burning desire to erase the last six years of history from the books, and the somewhat uncomfortable image of ripping away a small pay increase from people who work with young children.

To address this fairness and inequity, the Government has instead redirected the $300 million fund to “professional development” to the entire sector.

Well, $300 million minus the amount that had already been contracted out to organisations who, when politely asked by politicians on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (plus entitlements and apparently any large bookshelves they feel they might need) to return the money they were going to give to some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia, shocking said “No”.

According to the Department of Education, money should be rolling out to spend on professional development pretty soon. There is not a lot of information available on requirements, processes or obligations on services concerning the money.

But a more basic question has possibly not been asked – can the Government even do what they are proposing to do?

Let’s have a look at what we know.

The EYQF was legislated – it passed the House of Representatives and the Senate and became law. This means the money allocated for it can only be used for the prescribed, legislated purpose – i.e. professional wages.

From an interview on ABC’s 730 program in December:

SUSSAN LEY: …the special account Labor created only targeted long-day-care centres and only targeted a small proportion of those.

LEIGH SALES: But you’re in charge now. You’ve got the $300 million?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, we are stuck with their legislation and I don’t propose to send the legislation back to the Parliament.

The context of the conversation was that Leigh Sales had suggested to Sussan Ley if the issue was one of equity, why not just redistribute the funding to the entire sector. In this section, Sussan Ley has suggested that this was not possible due to the nature of the legislation.

The actual legislation itself – The Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013 – is available here and is pretty clear. It’s a riveting document with an almost spectacular lack of detail, but the key point is Section 7:

Purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account:

 

The purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account is to provide funding to approved centre based long day care services, to be used exclusively for paying remuneration, and other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.

Based on the evidence, it would appear to be legislatively impossible for the Assistant Minister to do as she is proposing, which is to redirect the funding legislated in this Bill.

Yet that appears to be exactly what is occurring, with apparently no objection from either the Opposition or United Voice.

The Bill does state that funds can be used for professional wages and “for other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.” This, however, hardly directly equates to professional development.

I have contacted the Assistant Minister with these questions and, based on my previous communications with her office, will receive a reply from her Department in 2-3 months.

But it perhaps needs to be asked of the other political players in ECEC why this rather substantial question on whether the Government can do what they are proposing to do has not been asked in Parliament.

Editors Note: Grateful thanks are given to Karl Hessian and Lisa Bryant for their research and assistance in this post. You can (and should) follow them both on Twitter by clicking on their names.

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Previous government’s trial program points to the need for facts in the flexibility debate

Should children's education and centres be more flexible with their opening hours?

Less than 100 families have made use of the Labor Government’s flexible childcare trials, according to figures from the Department of Education published in Fairfax papers. The trials were announced in March 2013 by Minister Kate Ellis, apparently as a result of “a clear demand for more flexible child care options”.

The $1.3 million Flexibility Fund was open to children’s services to provide a range of different options for families, including longer opening hours and even overnight or weekend services.

The trial featured a number of Family Day Care providers working with shift-workers in the emergency services sector, as well as a handful of Long Day Care centres trialling extended opening hours.

The report comes in the middle of ongoing media speculation regarding the Government’s planned changes to the children’s education and care sector. They are currently awaiting the outcome of the Productivity Commission Inquiry into the sector before making any changes.

But the Assistant Minister Sussan Ley has repeatedly pointed to a lack of flexibility in the sector to accommodate the needs of modern families. A point hardly backed up by the dismal take-up rate of the flexible options funded by Labor’s trials.

But the political debate around flexibility of children’s services has never been about facts. It seems to have become an assumed “fact” of the sector that it is not meeting the needs of a significant amount of families, but no person, organisation or peak body has actually provided data on this.

Surveys have indicated that anecdotally there are families who are wishing for extended opening hours particularly, but the Department of Education’s analysis suggests this is not a critical issue and that families are only requiring it on an “ad-hoc basis”.

So the assumed “fact” that flexibility is a major and concerning issue needs to be challenged. The results of the trial indicate that it is actually a very minor issue compared to actual availability, and affordability for a number of families.

The issues around shift-workers (particularly those in emergency services) is not just one for the sector – it is one that needs be addressed as an Australian community.

Simply extending operating hours to meet the needs of every single person who requires it is a ridiculous solution to this issue.

There first needs to be some facts on the table on how many families this is affecting, and then a discussion about a holistic approach to addressing it.

The business community needs to be a large part of the discussion. The community sector is often expected to twist and bend itself to meet the needs of business – are there any discussions taking place about business being more flexible to the needs of young families?

The failure of the Flexibility Fund should encourage policy makers to look at these issues holistically, and not as isolated “problems” that can be “fixed” with a targeted program.

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.

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.

ECEC centre offers “lovebird package” to families with night-time “babysitting”

The lovebirds special, which costs $95 and operates from 5pm to midnight at the NSW Academy of Early Learning in Casula, says an added bonus is that it is eligible for government rebates.

Owners Antony and Marc Elazzi said late-night care was much cheaper than hiring a babysitter.

“We believe that night care is the way of the future for the childcare industry,” Antony Elazzi said.

“We have created such a complicated world, where people have to work at night. The industry can provide a safe environment for children to stay which is regulated by the government, so that parents can work at night.”

Laura Speranza, Daily Telegraph (24/3/2013)

Well. It’s hard to know where to begin with this one.

This is where the for-profit chains, operators and advocates want to see the sector heading. This is “the future of the childcare industry”, according to Mr. Elazzi.

It’s a continuation of a trend that views ECEC as service for families, not as a right for children. The audacity of this proposal is shocking, and will of course be popular with some families. There will be no doubt some in the sector, perhaps even some of my own colleagues, who view this as a reasonable thing to do for some families.

But it needs to be completely clear that the view of ECEC as a learning and social right for children is completely incompatible with the view that “childcare” is a service for working families that can be twisted into any form that suits.

This is where the flexibility trials announced by Government will inevitably head, make no mistake. Any move to flexibility plays into the hands of profiteering private operators and fundamentally disadvantages children.

Advocates for children and for early learning and education in ECEC need to unite and take a stand on these kinds of issues. With 70% of the sector in the hands of private operators, this is an uphill battle – and we are losing.

Supporting working families and providing options for families is not the issue here. This needs to be worked through with a range of social and workforce policy measures – relying on ECEC to be all things to all families will be the end of any quality reforms we have started.

As for the educators of NSW Academy of Early Learning, any of them who have read this article must be thrilled to know their owners have such respect for them that they are being used as an option “cheaper than babysitting.”

What a lucky team.

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.

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.

Less tinkering needed, more consideration to a “root-and-branch” overhaul of ECEC

The current funding model – a John Howard special – removed the direct funding of services entirely from the system, replacing it with standardised fee subsidies for parents.

The rhetoric is straight economics 101: parents are the best judges of the quality of care so they will choose the right services. They are assumed to be able to compare prices, hours, quality, like choosing a Laundromat, and be ready to move the child if there is a better local offer. The model assumed a level playing field between consumer and provider but a perennial shortage of care in most areas put the power into the providers hands.

“Child’s play: Coalition childcare inquiry doesn’t go far enough”, Eva Cox (The Conversation)

Communities around Australia rally to support professional wages for early childhood educators.

The director of Master Kid Childcare Centre in Matraville, Emily Donnan, has been in the industry for 16 years and said she had spent 12 of those working two or three jobs at once.

She said many of her staff were living at home because they could not afford to rent. ”They will never be able to even think of having a holiday, getting a mortgage or even owning their own car,” she said.

Caring for children is no picnic, say workers, Melissa Davey (SMH)

A backwards step for German early childhood education?

One of the general criticisms of the stipend is that it will encourage women to stay out of the workplace for longer after having a child and that it keeps young kids away from the educational opportunities offered by public daycare.

German daycares are beyond capacity, and some believe the child-care stipend is merely a consolation for parents who might not have the means to get their kids a daycare spot. The government is aiming to increase capacity by August 2013, when another law guaranteeing parents a daycare spot for their kids comes into effect.

“Germany adopts child-care stipend for parents”, (Deutsche Welle)