Government arrives at policy position the rest of Australia arrived at 18 months ago

In what is presumably another example of the Prime Minister tackling the numerous barnacles that seem to be stubbornly attached to the ship of Government, Tony Abbott has foreshadowed that 2015 will see some tinkering to his signature Paid Parental Leave scheme. This will apparently see a focus on low- and middle-income families, as well as “more available and more affordable child care as well.”

As in many policy areas with this apparently “consultative” and “listening” Government, it seems that everyone else in Australia (including the majority of his own party) came to this realisation many, many months ago. Tony Abbott’s stubborn determination to hang on to the original “Rolls-Royce” version of the PPL was turning in to some sort of ongoing performance-art piece on political incompetence.

It’s important to note however that no actual details have been provided regarding any redistribution of funds from PPL to childcare. Presumably Cabinet s sifting through the Productivity Commission’s report into the sector, utilising its incredibly broad and diverse breadth of experience in these kind of issues to develop sensible and considered policies.

(Quick reminder below of the immense diversity and breadth of life experience in Cabinet. I dare anyone to find a group of old white guys more reflective of today’s Australian community than that bunch below.)

Various media outlets are reporting that the “tinkering” will see significantly less money spent on women earning $150,000 and over, with the savings essentially redirected into funding nannies and other in-home care arrangements.

I’ve written before about the complications that would ensue from simply pushing for more nannies. Clearly, the best solution to the issues facing the childcare sector is a well-funded, high-quality and easily accessible early childhood education and care sector. A significant redirection of funds into Long Day Care in particular could reap significant benefits.

We’ll likely know a lot more in early 2015. But given the Government’s track record in other policy announcements, we’ll likely wish we didn’t know a lot more in early 2015.

12-month funding extension doesn’t tell us anything about the Government’s position on early education

Sussan Ley is obviously familiar with the idea that you don’t come to a party empty-handed.

Before almost 2000 delegates at the opening day of Early Childhood Australia’s National Conference on Friday, the Assistant Minister for Education announced that the Federal Government would commit to a further 12 months of funding for the National Partnership Agreement on Preschool funding.

This Agreement provides funding to the States and Territories to top up their existing funded Preschool hours to 15 per week for every child. It was due to cease at the end of this year, and since its election in September last year the Government has steadfastly refused to confirm if the funding would be extended.

This failure to provide certainty has been regularly condemned by the sector, by early learning experts – and even the Productivity Commission has recommended in its draft report that the funding should be kept.

Minister Ley’s announcement has provoked mixed reactions. The extension of funding is undoubtedly welcome, but the caveat that it is only a 12-month extension once again places the sector in a state of uncertainty.

The decision provides further emphasis on the core problem facing the Government’s approach to childcare and early childhood education: It doesn’t have one.

Ever since their election, and in fact during most of their time in Opposition, the Abbott Government has been content to provide regular and scathing assessments of the Labor Government’s ineptitude and profligacy in this area.

“Fees rose 53% under Labor,” intones the Assistant Minister so regularly it is probably in her email signature block. “Operators are drowning in red tape” is another popular catchphrase.

Both those lines can be (and regularly have been) strongly rebutted – but one year after their election, there seems little point arguing to toss when we don’t even know what game we’re playing.

The early childhood sector and the community are no closer to understanding what the Government’s approach to such a critical policy area is now than they were one year ago. 52 weeks after they were handed the keys to Parliament House, it is surely not unreasonable that we might have an inkling of what the Government thinks needs to be done with early learning and childcare.

The go-to excuse has always been the Productivity Commission. Handballing the political hot potato to the Commission was a short-term measure to avoid scrutiny and making any actual decisions. Examining the issues and factors surrounding the sector is a worthwhile exercise, and the Commission’s draft report has already sparked debate in the community.

But the Government’s refusal to even point in the general direction of a policy position until they have had the chance to read the final report is now bordering on lunacy. Governments, and in particular this Government, are not unbiased implementers of recommendations from independent reviewers.

Governments are values-driven, and have a particular ideological bent. It is surely time, regardless of what the Commission recommends, that we have some idea of how the Government even views early learning.

This is a significant community issue, and plays into the lives of practically every Australian family. Regardless of whatever specific concerns people may have had about the policy settings of the previous Labor Government, they were at least clear that they stood for a growth in funding to early childhood education, a national benchmark of quality and support for children and families experiencing vulnerabilities to access early learning.

We have no such direction from the current Government, even in such general terms. In Opposition, Sussan Ley regularly lambasted the National Quality Framework as “the dead hand of government regulation”, while in Government has defended it from attacks by Senator David Leyonhjelm.

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have grimly told Australians that the budget is tight and no extra money can be found for early education in the Budget, while allocating $5.5 billion to a Paid Parental Leave scheme that barely even has majority support within their own party.

The Government is under no obligation to outline specific early education policies until they are ready – but they have surely run out of time to keep their general thoughts on such policies hidden and unknown.

They have certainly not been shy about coming forward with their ideological positions on a number of other issues such as free speech, the environment and education to name just a few.

Which begs the question: why is the Government so silent on early education?

Two possibilities suggest themselves – either they have no idea what to do and how to do it; or the plans they do have are too shocking to share with the electorate.

It’s hard to know which is worse.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for?

Disappointingly, the Government continues to use the Productivity Commission to paper over its complete lack of a childcare policy. Beyond pointing out the issues and declaring war on “the dead hand of government regulation”, the childcare sector and the community in general have no idea what the Abbott Government think should happen in this area.

This week, the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley may have given us a brief and tantalising spoiler. Responding to questions on what policies the Productivity Commission may propose, Ms Ley was quoted in The Australian:

“Ms Ley said “something is wrong with this picture” when asked about working parents unable to find places because they were taken by the children of parents who were not working.”

A simple statement that jibes well with the Government’s overall economic message of “lifters and leaners”, but in the context of childcare it is worth digging a little deeper on what Ms Ley may be telling us.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for? Let’s look at the candidates.

1. The economy

The strong contender. Freeing up parents to contribute to the workforce has obvious benefits to the economy at large. This imperative has been a significant part of most countries creation of their own childcare policies and frameworks, and Australia is no different.

Australia’s economy is performing exceptionally by international standards, but workforce participation is a huge driver of growth and wealth.

2. Families

When we say families, we have to be upfront and say “mothers”. In Australia it is still women that face the greatest challenge in returning to the workforce after having children.

The benefits to families are not just about returning to work. Quality early learning programs help prepare children for formal schooling, and have the potential to remediate the effects of family instability or vulnerability. International research has demonstrated that early learning has the potential to change the destinies of families.

The childcare sector is also designed to facilitate empowerment of women to maintain their careers alongside their families – but the catch in Australia has always been that childcare services need to be affordable, accessible and of high quality. Since the deregulation of the sector in the 1990s, Australia was struggled with all three of those indicators.

3. Children

And the last on our list of candidates: children. The fundamental irony of the sector is that is directed to provide education and care to over 1 million Australian children, but the rights and needs of children are usually far down on the list of priorities.

The National Quality Framework was a strong attempt to provide a foundational expectation of quality in the outcomes for children attending childcare services. More structural reforms were needed to address the issues created by deregulation however, which were best exemplified in the spectacular collapse of ABC Learning in 2008.

Returning to Ms Ley’s statement, we can see that while the economy and workforce participation are high on the list of goals for childcare, children are not getting a look-in. She is indicating the Government would prefer that only children of working parents have the right to access childcare. This is a significant statement.

Advocates for early childhood education, including myself, view access to quality childcare as not just an economic issue, but a matter of human rights. Children have the human right to attend a quality early learning program, regardless of their socio-economic background or the current circumstances of their parents.

Australia does not currently have strong record on the upholding of children’s rights. We are currently turning ourselves into outcasts in the international community with our illegal and inhumane treatment of child asylum seekers; each day of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reveals new horrors from Australia’s dark past of systemic failures to protect children; and child protection agencies around the country struggle to successfully keep children safe in the face of budget cuts and under-resourcing.

Approaching the sector only from the perspective of improving the economy leaves the system open to fail children – as it shockingly has in Ireland and the United States.

The importance of early childhood education, including strong childcare policies and structures, is now internationally recognised. As with the issues of asylum seekers, climate change and a host of others, Australia will fall behind the rest of the world by failing to properly invest in childcare.

But placing the rights of children at the centre of a restructuring of our approach to childcare has the primary benefit of being the right thing do by our society’s children, but the added benefits of meeting the outcomes for the economy as well.

A childcare sector that is properly funded and supported doesn’t have to pick and choose between the three outcomes listed above – it can actually choose Option 4: all of the above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Exclusive: new quality ratings now available from Government

seemsfine

It’s not often that we break news here on Lighting Fires, but it is with humble pride that we can exclusively reveal exciting new information from the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley on the ratings system for children’s services.

The Assistant Minister has been valiantly crusading against red tape in children’s services, attempting bravely to bat away the “dead hand of government regulation”.

Services have been lumbered with 50-page – fifty!! – reports outlining their current quality standard, using ridiculous metrics like “evidence” and “observations”.

As the Assistant Minister articulately pointed out:

I think that when you walk into a childcare centre, if you are a qualified assessor, and we’ve got good people in the West, I know, you can feel it, you can see it, you can – you know, you might have to measure some things but you don’t need to get carried away with too much red tape. [Source]

We’re pleased to reveal that here at Lighting Fires we have received a draft copy of the proposed new quality ratings, and the assessment process.

Visits will take a maximum of an hour, or until the cup of tea is finished, whichever comes first.

Centre ratings will henceforth be presented not in a heavy, unreadable 50-page – fifty!!! – document filled with complicated words and tables, but will be scrawled in biro on the back of a napkin.

This report will ideally be presented to the service on the day.

Every service will now recieve one of four ratings:

  1. “Meh”. Bit of work to do, people, maybe get round to that when you get a chance.
  2. Working Towards “Seems Fine”. Look, could things be a bit better? Yeah, probably, but hey, I get you’re busy. Chuck up a few posters or something and you’ll probably do OK.
  3. “Seems Fine”. Had a quick wander around, things feel pretty good.
  4. “Not Too Bad At All”. Hey you’re doing great! Keep up the good work, we won’t bother you for 10-20 years.

Centres who receive a rating of “Not Too Bad At All” will be able to chuck the assessor a twenty and receive a rating of Top Notch.

Families can rest assured that quality will still be assured for children under this new system. Assessors will be thoroughly trained in “getting a feel for the place” and “the vibe”.

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.

Where will the Government be heading on early childhood education?

ac-abbott-defcon-20130826061341936952-620x0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Letter to Sussan Ley, Assistant Minister for Education

In the light of recent public statements on potential changes to the National Quality Framework, I have written to the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley. I would strongly recommend that advocates for quality children’s education and care do the same. Contact details are here.

To the Honourable Sussan Ley MP,
Assistant Minister for Education

Minister, my name is Liam McNicholas. I am an early childhood teacher working in the Australian Capital Territory.

I have been extremely concerned to read and hear your recent official statements on the early childhood education and care sector. I undertake my role because of the incredible potential to postively affect the lives of children. Not just in the time they are with me and my colleagues, but their entire lives.

An ever-growing body of research consistently demonstrates that there is no more important time in the development of a human being than their first five years. Australia’s early childhood education and care sector has an incredible potential to address inequality for children, and set them up for their future success.

But there is also potential to have negative impacts.

Early childhood educators have some of the worst wages in this country. Turnover of educators is extremely high. There are not enough educators to properly support children, particulary the youngest infants.

Services are not directly funded by the Federal Government, so must always struggle to find a balance between charging enough to do our jobs properly and ensure it is accessible to all families.

In a system with these pressures, the potential for children to be harmed is high. Not just physical or mental harm, but in such a crucial period of their development if there are negative impacts on a child it could follow them their entire life.

It is clearly cruical that we get this work right.

The National Quality Framework has been a successful project in ensuring that there is a national standard on quality for all children accessing an ECEC service. It also holds those services accountable.

It is extremely concering to hear you, and your colleagues, describe it as “drowning in red tape” or a “bureaucratic nightmare”.

Really, Minister? Keeping children safe is too much of a “nightmare” for the services and people you are speaking to?

I’ve worked in the ECEC sector for 12 years. I have always worked for community not-for-profit operations, as I believe this is the only current ethical way to support children’s learning and wellbeing in the sector.

I have been a teacher, a Centre Director and an Area Manager. Regulations are not burdensome, they are the framework that supports us to do our job well.

It forces those in the for-profit sector who would rather just make a quick buck to meet a minmum standard.

My suggestion to you when you meet with people in the sector who complain about “red tape” is to suggest they find another job to do. No-one is forcing them to stay.

If meeting 58 standards is too much like hard work, find something easier to do. Find something that won’t directly impact on the lives of Australia’s youngest citizens.

This work is crucial. It should be hard.

I implore you to show leadership in your new role, Minister. Consult and engage with a wider group of people than the private sector, who do not have the best interests of children at heart – only their profits.

I implore you to stop using easy, damaging and false language like “drowning in red tape”. Are you seriously of the belief that people and organisations working with young children shouldn’t have to fill in a bit of paperwork?

The ratio and qualification requirements at the foundation of the NQF are essential to the ongoing quality improvements in the sector. I will be advocating strongly that they are carried out, and indeed extended.

My motivation for that advocacy is the best interests of children.

I ask you to question what the motivations of those who would halt or wind back the National Quality Framework are.

I doubt children are in there. I am sure dollar signs are.

You have a leadership role in our sector Minister Ley, and I would welcome any opportunities to engage with you on this critical issue.

Yours sincerely

Liam McNicholas