Indigenous children’s access to ECE slashed by Government reform package

New report reveals impact of Government’s reform package on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services

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A report from Deloitte Access Economics for SNAICC released today revealed the concerning impact of the Federal Government’s “Jobs for Families” package for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families.

From ABC News Online:

The Deloitte research shows 40 per cent of families using the BBF services would receive fewer hours of subsidised care.

It also shows 54 per cent of families using BBF services would have higher out-of-pocket costs and the biggest impact would be felt by families earning less than $65,000.

Two-thirds of service providers would also receive less government funding.

Hilariously, the Federal Government has claimed the report is inaccurate and fails to take into account other elements of their reform package – despite the fact that the Government has consistently failed to reveal huge amounts of actual information the proposed reforms, both through the Regulatory Impact Statement process and in the proposed legislation currently before the Senate.

The Child Care Subsidy is only vaguely described, how it can be applied for and received is basically unknown, and how children and their families’ situations will be monitored on an ongoing basis is not described.

The economic benefits of the Jobs for Families package are dubious at best. The impact on children and families at-risk and experiencing vulnerability is crystal clear. The argument that this package is “OK with a few amendments” is becoming increasingly difficult to swallow.

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High-profile advocacy is being successfully run internationally – but not in Australia

Big Steps Day crowd in Garema Place, Canberra

2014 is a huge year for early childhood education in Australia – so now seems like a good time to ask why Australian advocacy for early learning is not working.

The global profile of early childhood education has probably never been higher. Whether it’s universal access, workforce participation for women and the resultant economic benefits, or the proven link between high quality early learning and addressing structural disadvantage for children, the case to focus policy and budgets on young children is being made all over the world.

Just to pick a few examples, the United Kingdom is having an active political discussion on the merits of universal childcare, which will be one of the key issues of the upcoming 2015 General Election.

President Barrack Obama has also highlighted early childhood education as a priority in his second and final term of office, while former Secretary of State (and very possibly the next President of the US) Hillary Clinton is spearheading a huge advocacy push called Too Small to Fail.

Canadian advocates have been running a long-term, targeted and very savvy campaign targeting local councils and the national Government – The Plan for $10/Day Child Care.

Smart, focused and high-profile campaigns are being successfully run internationally. The same cannot be said for Australia.

This is not to say there are not excellent advocates and advocacy organisations that are operating in Australia – there certainly are.

But in terms of scale, scope and recognition to the general public? Nothing on the scale of any of the international examples.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, Australia faces many of the same political and social challenges as the countries listed above – sluggish economies, challenges to workforce participation and rising burden of cost of childcare to families.

We also know from Australian data that 1 in 4 children are starting formal schooling with a developmental delay.

The rising costs of ECEC, issues with availability and a new push for quality are regular items in the media. The conditions are perfect for a clear advocacy campaign to cut through.

But nothing has. There is no clarion call for universal access to early childhood services – individuals are calling for it, but only as individual voices lost in a swirl of op-eds and half-baked ideas about importing nanny-servants.

The Big Steps campaign has enjoyed publicity and even a significant victory – but its target is narrow (professional wages) and comes with the baggage of being a union campaign, fairly or unfairly.

A new player on the block is The Parenthood, a social-media-driven network of families advocating on a number of issues. It’s too soon to effectively judge this group, but it’s important to remember that at this stage The Parenthood (despite some media attention) have not yet demonstrated they have broken through to the wider community.

Their most recent campaign to quarantine preschool funding has only attracted just over 1300 signatures so far. Not insignificant, but not game-changing.

Hard as it may be to admit, the most consistently clear, targeted and successful advocacy on ECEC issues has come from Gwynn Bridge and the Australian Childcare Alliance.

They are the go-to group for the media, have a close relationship with the most senior decision-maker in our sector Assistant Minister Sussan Ley, and have effectively and in all likelihood irrevocably set a significant portion of the sector against quality reforms and the raising of standards for centres.

Like it or not, advocates for high-quality, accessible and child-focused ECEC need to learn from Ms. Bridge and her organisation, and they will need to do it quickly.

The sector has been beset by fragmentation and a lack of collaboration. Reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s turned early learning into a market-based free-for-all. Community organisations who should be natural partners on this issue instead compete for government tenders and grants.

The submissions to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into the sector revealed a frightening lack of consensus amongst early childhood organisations and stakeholders, and more broadly in the community demonstrated the lack of a single “vision” to reach for.

Instead of the community having a smart, simple campaign they could latch on to, we’re stuck with whatever ridiculous thought bubble the latest Think Tank has just thrown up.

The fundamental reason that we don’t have a banner to rally around is that no-one could agree what colour it would be, let alone what would be written on it.

Internationally, Australia is viewed as fairly progressive – we did after all briefly elect an atheist, unmarried woman as our leader.

But everything I know about Australia tells a different story – a country with a deep, long and embedded relationship with conservatism.

The same country – and the same political party – that elected Julia Gillard mercilessly and callously cut her down, with more than a whiff of relaxed sighs when two successive white men in suits (and idiotic grins) took her place.

The main progressive party in this country re-opened Manus Island and signed the PNG re-settlement deal. It has supported ever-encroaching freedom for intelligence agencies to collect information on us.

In the last Parliament, only 48 MPs out of 150 voted for marriage equality. 26 of the “No” votes came from the ALP. To contrast, conservative governments in New Zealand and the United Kingdom have implemented laws allowing for gay marriage.

The case for high-quality, accessible and affordable childcare strikes on a deeply conservative nerve as I have written before. Conservative values say the kids stay at home with Mum. Universal childcare has the potential to undermine the much-hyped about “family unit”, with Mum, Dad and the little kiddies.

Despite a laid-back, “all good” image we project abroad, Australia has demonstrated time and time again that we are conservative nation that occasionally (and reluctantly) dabbles with progressive notions. Early childhood advocates will need to be strategic and persistent to defeat that.

But there is a slight silver lining – when Australia does go progressive, it goes hard. Medicare is a good example. Free, universal healthcare is not going anywhere, no matter how conservative the Government of the day may be.

Progressive wins, when they are completely won, are fully embedded. Universal early childhood education could be the next big win.

I’ve identified the problems – now what are the solutions?

Large early childhood organisations need to come together across the country for large-scale and targeted political advocacy.

Getting those organisations to agree on every point will never happen – so it needs to be around something simple. For me, the focal point has to be the continuation of the NQF in its current form.

Removing the points of contention and coming together around this issue is not impossible, but could have significant impact. A coalition of providers in Australia could be a powerful political force – now we just have to see if they realise it.

Can the US make much-needed changes to its ECE sector?

Laura Bornfreund and Conor Williams have examined President Obama’s second-term focus on early childhood education in The Atlantic.

While early education’s policy reality hasn’t lived up to the last five years’ rhetoric, there is some evidence of a silver lining. Think of it like a rail system: it’s as though we’ve spent half a decade designing and laying new high-speed rails linking sparkling, as-yet unused train stations. We’ve invested in shiny, state-of-the-art engines. But we haven’t yet bought fuel or enough cars to serve all of the system’s young “passengers.”

President Obama has another two years of office left, and is facing incredible political hurdles. It remains to be seen if anything more can be achieved on this issue – which is a shame, as it can and must be a vital part of addressing rising inequality in that country.

It stands in contrast to Australia, where in 2014 we could actually be moving backwards on higher standards and greater outcomes for children’s learning and wellbeing.

Listening to the voices of children

From April 2014, children from a number of countries will be able to directly take reports of human rights abuses to the United Nations. But not Australian children. Paula Gerber, Associate Professor of Human Rights Law at Monash University, explains.

Australia ratified the convention in 1990 and has also ratified both of its other Optional Protocols, one on child soldiers and the other on the sale of children into prostitution and child pornography. But can we expect Australia to ratify this latest protocol?

The answer is probably “eventually”. In other words, we shouldn’t hold our breath. Although Australia, under the Hawke government, was quick to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has been less keen to submit itself to the complaints procedures under various UN human rights treaties.

 Since the famous Toonen decision in 1994, which found Tasmania’s laws criminalising homosexuality to be a breach of human rights, Australia has been found to have violated the human rights of complainants on at least 33 occasions.

Australia’s history with the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) is complex. Despite ratifying the Convention in 1990, it has been slow to adopt many of the Optional Protocols.

Gerber explains that the UN Committee that oversees the UNCROC has regularly been critical of Australia’s approach to supporting children’s rights. Right now, Australia is actively placing children in danger in immigration detention. We are also receiving horrific stories from the Royal Commission into child abuse on organisational and systemic failings in our support systems for children.

As one of the most prosperous and secure nations on Earth, Australia is in a position to be a standard-bearer for children’s rights. It remains to be seen when, or even if, this will ever be the case.

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/.

The terrifying reality of American “daycare”

Trusting your child with someone else is one of the hardest things that a parent has to do—and in the United States, it’s harder still, because American day care is a mess. About 8.2 million kids—about 40 percent of children under five—spend at least part of their week in the care of somebody other than a parent. Most of them are in centers, although a sizable minority attend home day cares. In other countries, such services are subsidized and well-regulated. In the United States, despite the fact that work and family life has changed profoundly in recent decades, we lack anything resembling an actual child care system. Excellent day cares are available, of course, if you have the money to pay for them and the luck to secure a spot. But the overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian.

Jonathan Cohn, New Republic (15/4/2013)

Equal parts fascinating and horrifying, this lengthy and in-depth article on the shocking inadequacies of the American system of early childhood care and education is recommended reading for anyone working in the ECEC field. This article serves as the counter-balance to any push for less regulation and lower standards in Australia.

Well worth putting aside half an hour and reading.

Welcoming men into ECEC

The most recent figures from the Australian Productivity Commission put the percentage of male educators working in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector at 3 per cent.

This is obviously an incredibly small amount, and is similar to other countries around the world. Why do so few men choose to work in early education?

There is no one simple answer to this question. Working with young children has traditionally been seen in society as a women’s role. The “traditional” roles of men and women were as “breadwinners” and “nurturers” respectively.

As child care and early education developed in Australia, there was a common societal understanding that the work would be performed primarily by women.

But as gender attitudes and preconceptions change, this is increasingly seen as the wrong way to look at the roles of men and women in early education.

Women have, and still are, fighting the battle to be seen as equally able to have a successful career and take powerful leadership roles in the business community.

This means that expectations around fathers have also slowly changed. Men can now expect to share the work of raising children, where once it was solely the women’s domain.

This cultural shift does not seem to have extended to early education though. The low percentage of male educators is evidence that the profession is still regarded in society as women’s work.

This, when combined with a national shortage of qualified educators and high rates of turnover, constitutes a serious problem for the ECEC sector.

Low wages and lack of professional recognition are a problem for all educators, male and female. The low wage is often given as a significant reason for the inability to recruit male educators. While this is certainly a factor, it is surely not the only reason.

The underlying problem lies in the perception of the work. When it is seen primarily as women’s work, men who choose to begin a career in ECEC can be viewed with suspicion by families and even by fellow educators.

Paul Sargent, a US-based education researcher, has collected many stories of male educators suffering prejudice and suspicion. He notes that even if they manage to avoid the worst of this, they are often expected to perform their roles in particularly “masculine” ways – for instance, focusing on outdoor play and physical development activities.

This can be problematic for men who work with children in different ways, such as being nurturing and caring. Men who act outside “the way men should act” are likely to be viewed as “different”, if not viewed with outright suspicion.

Anecdotally however, there are many examples of services wishing for more male educators. They are often described as a bringing a different perspective to the work environment, particularly among teams that have always been completely staffed by women.

Research has also shown that positive male role models in the early years can deliver benefits to children and families in disadvantage.

Yet this has not translated into higher numbers of men entering the ECEC sector as educators and teachers.

With the staffing crisis currently in evidence around the country, it is clear that breaking down the barriers to men choosing a career in the sector can only be of positive benefit to ECEC centres.

If the percentage could be raised even slightly, to 10 or 15 per cent, this would constitute a large number of new educators and teachers working with children.

So what can ECEC organisations, managers and directors do to encourage more men to apply for one of the vacancies in their centres?

A good place to start is in the centre itself. How are male role models portrayed in your learning environments? Is there evidence of fathers and male teachers and educators positively engaging in the lives of children? Do men feel welcomed into your space?

Make a decision to include a positive male image in all centre marketing and published materials. This works to reinforce in the minds of potential applicants that they have a place in your organisation. It also actively counteracts negative and damaging prejudices in society about men working with young children.

A great example of this is with the NSW-based organisation Big Fat Smile, which clearly sets out in its marketing that men are encouraged to work in their ECEC centres. This is a very inclusive approach to marketing a career in the sector.

Get involved with local schools, colleges and careers fairs and talk to young men about the rewarding career opportunities that come from working in ECEC.

Include positive stories from men already working in your organisation in newsletters and updates to families and the wider community.

Retaining men in the sector is just as important as recruitment, so it is important that men (as with all educators) are supported during induction and probation periods.

Issues that may arise with families (usually in the Infants rooms) need to be sensitively and respectfully managed. Leaders in the ECEC organisation need to take a proactive role in working with families to challenge bias and prejudice, and not simply move a male educator out of an Infants room.

It is also important that organisations, leaders and educators reflect on diverse ways of working with children, and ensure that men feel comfortable teaching and educating children in a way that works for them.

This is also important to share with children. The Early Years Learning Framework encourages us to work with children on challenging gender bias and assumptions. We need to remind children that boys can play with dolls, and girls can engage in construction activities (to use two simple examples).

Breaking down gender stereotypes with young children can give them a positive attitude to their own potential and those of their peers, and work to change the broader views of society.

Just as we are still working to embed the idea in society that girls can grow up to be and do anything they choose, in ECEC settings we need to see organisations demonstrating and advocating that teaching and educating is not “women’s work”, but a rewarding profession for all.

This article was originally published April 16 2013 on the website careforkids.com.au.

National Children’s Commissioner to focus on hearing the voices of children

“We must learn from the mistakes of the past, when children’s voices were ignored with devastating consequences,” [Megan Mitchell, Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner] said at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

“The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will, I am sure, uncover stories where children’s voices were unheard, and even when heard, were deliberately not taken into account.

“We need to make sure our attitudes and our systems respect the child’s voice. This is one of the essential ways that we can help children to be safe, to realise their potential, and to live full and happy lives.”
Rachel Browne, SMH (15/4/2013)

The importance of listening to the voices of children is an integral part of our work with children in the early childhood education sector, and it is wonderful to hear that this will also be a focus for the Children’s Commissioner.

Attention on the lack of men in ECEC, but what are the causes?

[Early childhood educator] Mr Wagland, 48, happily spends most of his days interacting with children outside, passing on his love of the environment, focussed “on ground level”.

“You don’t notice that your workplace is full of women because you are actually working with children all day,” he said.

Martina Simos, Adelaide Now (4/3/2013)

To be blunt, this article is an incredibly lightweight look at a complex issue. Childcare SA President Sam Mahony (who recently threatened to use ECEC children and families in a political campaign against Minister Kate Ellis) claims that men are wary of entering a female-dominated industry, which may be true, but he does not (in this article at least) raise the issues of professional wages, professional respect and potential suspicion of men who choose to work with young children.

Mr Wagland’s comments also unfortunately reinforce existing stereotypes on men who work with children. Happily spending his days outside with the children is great, but tends to reflect a preconception that male educators and teachers focus on physical development and games with children. This ignores the male educators and teachers who work with children in other areas across the range of holistic early childhood learning. This then creates further challenges for men who do not fit the existing stereotype to join the sector.

As for the comment “You don’t notice that your workplace is full of women”, this is sadly entirely missing the rather obvious point that ECEC workplaces are full of women. This is tied into cultural norms that place women in the role of caregiver, and then into low-paying and lowly-respected roles as essentially “babysitters”.

I would suggest to Mr Wagland that he perhaps takes a another look around his centre and advocate for community recognition of his work and the work of his colleagues he appears not to have noticed.

Is a lack of high-quality ECEC holding back women’s rights?

The U.S. lags far behind other industrialized nations in establishing a functional child care system. That’s why President Obama’s recent proposal to provide universal access to preschool is encouraging. While it doesn’t completely address the needs of the 11 million children younger than 5 utilizing child care each week, it’s a step in the right direction for women and families.

Not only does preschool improve the educational trajectory of young children, but universal access to preschool would eliminate one barrier to women’s equality in the workforce — at least, beyond a child’s first three years of life. The work-life policies that [New York Times columnist] Coontz seeks must be accompanied by increased public investment in child care and early education, particularly for the most marginalized women.

Anika Rahman, Huffington Post (2/3/2013)

The childcare sector was set up primarily to provide opportunities for women to enter the workforce, due to entrenched cultural biases towards women taking on the child-rearing role. While it is certainly true that a well-funded and high quality ECEC sector could improve women’s rights in the workplace, it can be problematic to purely view ECEC as a workforce issue. This means that the focus is on workers, and not children.

If we wanted to view ECEC as purely about workforce participation, we could simply cut qualification requirements and regulations and have it as an extremely cheap babysitting service. This would enable more families to afford it and enable great workforce participation.

But would that be in the best interests of children? Surely a superior proposition is to have high-quality early learning for children at no cost to any family – thereby ensuring equity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is the philosophy behind universal-access advocacy, and would be working in the best interests of children, while also giving families (particularly women) choices around their careers.