Upcoming changes to ECEC regulations

The Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley has issued a press release foreshadowing changes to the National Quality Framework regulatory system.

“The Coalition has a clear position supporting high-quality child care, but it needs to be delivered in a fairer way that doesn’t make it unaffordable and inaccessible for parents and providers,” Ms Ley said.

“The child care industry has said loud and clear that Labor’s increased red tape and regulations are some of the main reasons forcing them to raise fees and we’re listening.

“These changes will be a significant first step in improving the implementation of the National Quality Framework.

There is so much that is alarming in this short press release, it’s hard to know where to begin.

As I have said again and again, the issue of “red tape” is only an issue for people who don’t take their jobs seriously.

 “Currently all operators have to undergo assessment in seven ‘quality areas’ that require compliance with 18 ‘standards’ and 58 ‘elements’ just to receive a quality rating—it’s a bureaucratic nightmare,” Ms Ley said.

 

Assistant Minister Ley talks about the 58 elements that services have to be assessed against as a “bureaucratic nightmare”. This is absolute nonsense, and needs to be called out as such. The examples of the United States and Ireland demonstrate that a system without oversight directly harms children.

“But if it wasn’t complex enough, none of these regulations are individually weighted to represent their importance, meaning one minor issue could deliver a poor rating across the board.”

I agree that there is a discussion that needs to be had about the assessment and rating process. For many centres it is inequitable. But the standards themselves are great – in fact, the bar should be raised higher in many of them.

No specific changes are mentioned in the press release, but merely promises to “streamline” processes.

It is intimated in the release that there could be changes to qualification requirements and ratios.

Advocates for quality education and care should be concerned. Watch this space.

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EYQF conditional funding withdrawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll on the Pay Equity case at Fair Work Australia.

What 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.

Coalition now supporting the NQF?

Sussan Ley, the Coalition’s spokesperson for childcare and early learning, has signalled that if elected her party will ensure the implementation of the National Quality Framework.

The Coalition has promised if it wins the election to convene a meeting with state and territory ministers to fine-tune the NQF to remove excessive regulation, but will maintain the quality aspects of the reforms to a sector dominated by low-paid female workers.

“Rollback of the reforms is not a term I have ever used and, by law, any slowdown would be a decision for the state and territory governments, individually or collectively,” opposition childcare spokeswoman Sussan Ley told The Australian.

“If we’re elected, we will sit down with state and territory ministers to work out what aspects of the NQF could work better than they are at present,” she said.

“In particular, we will focus on where excessive regulation adds to compliance and cost but not to quality.”

Source: The Australian

This is a fairly significant backdown after years of dramatic recitations of “the dead hand of government red tape”. The Coalition will also apparently accept the verdict of Fair Work Australia on any wage increases for educators. Taking Ms Ley at face value, this is good news for the sector.

It is important to remember, however, that the Coalition has been feeling political pressure on childcare and early learning, and the Australian has been very accommodating to their views on government regulation.

Also importantly, in the article Ms Ley claims that she has never stated that the Coalition would “roll back” reforms. This is disingenuous at best, and an outright falsehood at worst.

A good comparison on Ms Ley’s apparent change of heart can be found be reading this article “Coalition plans for childcare rollback” from 2012.

Ms Ley told The Australian the regulation was killing the sector and must be abandoned.

“Family daycare is becoming incredibly inflexible under the National Quality reforms,” she said. “I’m really feeling the frustration of the sector because every childcare roundtable I attend brings forward more examples of the dead hand of government regulation in a sector that absolutely doesn’t need it.

Why ECEC is not over-regulated

Kids banned from blowing out candles on birthday cakes. Centres fined $50,000 for changing two nappies at the same time. Centres closing under the weight of bureaucracy — is overregulation the biggest threat to early childhood education? Only if you listen to the tabloids.

In 2007, the Labor Government set the goal of raising standards in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) Centres. This led to the 2012 launch of the National Quality Framework (NQF), a package of reforms to the sector that included new qualification requirements for educators, lowering of ratios in some states and territories, and a new national oversight body — the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. The reforms are to be rolled out in stages until 2020.

The majority of community not-for-profit providers have enthusiastically backed the NQF reforms, citing international research that stresses the long-term importance of targeted and quality early learning programs, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Private operators have bitterly opposed the reforms, citing the need to raise fees for families and the burdensome nature of the new regulations. In South Australia, some have threatened to mobilise families in Early Childhood and Childcare Minister Kate Ellis’ electorate.

Sussan Ley, the opposition spokesperson for childcare and early childhood learning, has regularly spoken out against the Government’s reforms, calling them “over-regulation” and pledging to reduce “red tape” if the Coalition wins government. This has of course been gleefully taken up by a right-wing press eager to attribute the “dead hand of government regulation” to anything that sits still long enough.

I was lucky to have a personal meeting with Ley in 2012 where she took the opportunity to deny that the Coalition was planning on rolling back the NQF reforms. But it was also clear from that meeting that Ley and the Opposition are focused purely on addressing knee-jerk reactions from the sector on regulations, rather than actually engaging with any of the deeper issues. She also seemed dismissive of the Early Years Learning Framework, the early learning guide for early childhood teachers and educators.

I have absolutely no doubt that Ley could find any number of people who complain about over-regulation. I’ve certainly done enough of it myself.

In my role as a centre director there are volumes of strict regulation that must be adhered to — not to mention the paperwork. But they are are absolutely essential.

In ECEC centres, as well as being responsible for their ongoing education and learning, we are legally responsible for the care and wellbeing of children. Most centres being opened these days are licenced for upwards of 100 children per day.

Somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter. Being entrusted into the legal protection of someone else.

Regulation is not there to make people’s lives a living hell (although I may disagree after a couple of hours of filling out forms). They are there to mark a standard, and ensure that that standard is met.

ECEC centres, like everything else in this society, are human enterprises. Just like every other sector and profession, some centres will be great, some will not be so great. When you’re dealing with young children, we cannot allow the not-so-great centres to remain that way.

I can handle a bakery baking some low quality muffins due to a lack of regulation. I can’t handle the centre my daughter attends providing children low quality education and care and possibly endangering their safety.

It is easy, too easy, to simply claim that red tape and bureaucracy hold enterprising and innovative people back. Regulation in ECEC is a safety net for children and families that ensures centres have to meet a certain standard.

The idea of “rolling back” regulations is not only simplistic and misguided, but frightening.

With a low paid and overworked sector receiving little professional recognition and leaving their work in droves, less regulation will result in more incidents with children’s health and safety.

To put it bluntly, any ECEC service or director that cannot handle the regulatory burden shouldn’t be in business. As someone with 10 years experience in the sector, I find the new regulations far clearer, understandable and supportive.

One of the goals of the NQF reforms was to remove unnecessary bureaucracy, particularly at the state and territory level, and create a single set of national regulations. To a huge extent, this has happened.

The Opposition and media have delighted in pointing out obscure regulations as evidence of the “nanny-state”. That said, the Opposition would be the first to cry foul and insist on inquiries and investigations into any potential serious incidents in an ECEC centre.

I would suggest to Ley that she focus more on the “Early Childhood Learning” part of her title instead of pandering to complaints about over-regulation. The lowering of ratios and raising of qualification standards that are part of the National Quality Framework are integral to lasting quality in the sector.

The reforms of the NQF are a step in the right direction, and need to be steadily built upon and expanded. Rolling them back would not only be disastrous for the sector and for children, but would directly put children at risk of harm.

This story was originally published on the New Matilda website.

Another bandaid solution?

“The new standards are designed to transform centres into learning, rather than babysitting, environments but have been criticised by the opposition and some parts of the childcare sector for being too expensive and ultimately costing parents through increased fees.”

“Grants to be tripled to staff in childcare”, Patricia Karvelas (The Australian, paywalled)

In defence of red tape

In July, Sussan Ley, the opposition spokesperson for Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, spoke out against the national quality reforms, calling it ‘over-regulation’ and pledging to reduce ‘red tape’ if the Coalition won government.

I was lucky to have a personal meeting with Ms Ley a few weeks ago, where she took the opportunity to deny that the Coalition were planning on rolling back any of the reforms. But it was also clear from that meeting that Ms Ley and the Opposition are focused purely on addressing knee-jerk reactions from the sector on regulations, rather than actually engaging with any of the deeper issues. Ms Ley also seemed to have a dismissive or uninterested attitude to the Early Years Learning Framework.

The issue brings up a broader point about regulation of the ECEC sector. I have absolutely no doubt that Ms Ley could find any number of people who complain about over-regulation. I’ve certainly done enough of it myself.

In my two years as a Centre Director there were large amounts of paperwork, vast quantities of forms to sign and large volumes of strict regulation to strictly adhere to. It was easily the least favourite part of my job, and I took many and varied opportunities (as my wife, colleagues and people popping into the centre to ask for directions will attest) to rail against them.

But here’s the thing. They are absolutely essential.

In ECEC centres, as well as being responsible for their ongoing education and learning, we are legally responsible for the care and wellbeing. In the centre I directed, that was 53 children a day. Most centres being opened these days are upwards of 100. That’s 100 children, per day.

Somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter. Being entrusted into the legal protection of someone else.

Regulation is not there to make people’s lives a living hell (although I may disagree after a couple of hours wading through them). They are there to ensure a standard, and ensure that that standard is met.

ECEC centres, like everything else in this society, are human enterprises. Just like every other sector and profession, some centres will be great, some will not be so great. When you’re dealing with young children, we cannot allow the not-so-great centres to remain that way.

I can handle a bakery producing some low-quality muffins due to a lack of regulation. I can’t handle the centre my daughter attends providing children low-quality education and care and possibly endangering their safety.

It is easy, too easy, to simply claim that red tape and bureaucracy hold enterprising and innovative people back. Regulation in ECEC is a safety net for children and families that ensures centres have to meet a certain standard.

The idea of ‘rolling back’ regulations is not only misguided but frightening. With a low-paid and overworked sector receiving little professional recognition and leaving their work in droves, less regulation will encourage more incidents with children’s health and safety.

To put it bluntly, any ECEC service or director that cannot handle the regulatory burden shouldn’t be in business.

I would suggest to Ms Ley that she focus more on the ‘Early Childhood Learning’ part of her title instead of pandering to anyone’s complaining about over-regulation. The lowering of ratios and raising of qualification standards that are part of the National Quality Framework are integral to lasting quality in the sector.

For everyone else, do what I did – learn to love the red tape: it’s there to support what we do, not drown us.

And for those days when it gets on top of you, I recommend a large glass of red wine.

This article was originally published on the Big Steps website.