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Think it’s tough being an early childhood educator now? Just wait until 2 July 2018.

I’ve talked pretty endlessly on this blog, and on the Early Education Show podcast, about my concerns about the Federal Government’s new Child Care Package (formally known as the Jobs for Families Package, which tells you quite succinctly everything you need to know about these reforms). They’re bad for children, they’re bad for the sector, and the sector should not have supported them in any way.

As we heave ourselves over the line into 2018, the year that will see the introduction of this new legislation, I wanted to highlight an issue I am worried is not getting anywhere near enough attention.

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Four years on from the NQF, are educators more respected?

This week, the federal Department of Education is conducting a nationwide “Workforce Census” of early childhood education and care (ECEC) services. This census will provide important information on the qualifications, retention rates and other factors that provide a snapshot of the early childhood educator role in Australia.

This is a good opportunity to take a step back and look holistically at how early childhood educators are viewed and supported, both within the ECEC sector and in the community. The National Quality Framework (NQF) was introduced in 2012, and one of its key pillars was the acknowledgement that quality learning could be provided by qualified and valued educators.

Four years on, how close are we to realising that vision?


Where does Rudd’s return leave ECEC?

So, where does the rise of Rudd 2.0 leave early childhood education and care in Australia? As with most policy areas right now, we can only speculate (a very popular pastime right now).

The only certainty is that Peter Garrett has resigned his position as Minister for ECEC. Kate Ellis has not made any announcements, but has regularly voiced her clear support for Julia Gillard in the past. Unless she has changed her position to support for Kevin Rudd, it seems reasonable to assume that she may also choose to stand down in the near future.

Ellis and Garret have been the principal drivers of the National Quality Agenda within the Government, and their loss could signal that the NQA will be a low-priority during the period until the next election. The Department, DEEWR, will likely be sidelining any new work on it as well, awaiting the outcome of the election.

Rudd has voiced his general support for early learning before, particularly in the lead-up to the 2007 election where he shared his vision of “super-schools”, which incorporated early learning and K-12 in an integrated model.

This model was never really pursued, as economics and asylum seekers dominated the political agenda. It is completely unclear where Rudd would take ECEC if he is re-elected.

The most recent policy news for ECEC is the passing of the Early Years Quality Fund into law. This does not 100% guarantee that this will now be in place, but it does make it far more difficult to be halted.

This will be an interesting one – Rudd is no friend of the union movement, and may choose to back down in the face of a concerted push from the private operators to drop it.

Due to the fundamental inequity of the EYQF, as I have written before, this would be no terrible thing – but Rudd would need to swiftly announce a plan to replace it and address the wage inequity for educators.

Hopefully the commitment to a wage equity case at Fair Work Australia will remain – this seems very likely, as it is a relatively small commitment of many with almost no real detractors. It also allows Rudd to “kick the can down the road” for another couple of years.

The fundamental uncertainty is going to be around the continuation of the NQF reforms. The qualification requirements for 2014 are going to be a huge struggle for the sector, and it is entirely possible that the new-look Government may choose to put them on hold. Rudd will be looking to win over “working families”, and a commitment to push pack potential qualification-driven fee increases could be popular.

This will be a tricky one for the sector to manage. I am whole-heartedly committed to having people with the highest qualifications, but implementing them without structural reform to enable centres to actually recruit them seems ridiculous.

It may be better in the long run to push out the requirements – as long as a long-term plan to fundamentally reform the ECEC sector is also announced.

In the end, it seems likely that we won’t know what road ECEC will be taking until after the election, and potentially either a Coalition Government or a Rudd-led Labor one is installed. It is clear that Tony Abbott’s government would, if not completely roll back the reforms, freeze them as they are.

Labor will be stuck between the positives of the NQF reforms, and how generally unpopular they are with their link to fee increases. It is entirely possible they will adopt the same strategy.

UPDATED: Kate Ellis has confirmed that she will be remaining as a Government Minister until the election.


Why I cannot support the Early Years Quality Fund package

The Federal Government’s recent announcement of The Early Years Quality Fund (EYQF), a two-year, $300 million-funded program to lift the wages of early childhood educators, marked a significant turning point in the national discussion about those who work with young children.

Bill Shorten, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, succinctly put the government’s position:

“It is no longer enough, I think, for Australia to simply rely upon the emotional, the intellectual and indeed the physical efforts of Australia’s childcare workers and not adequately remunerate them.”
Shorten also raised the issue of gendered wage discrimination in the sector: “I don’t think anyone seriously believes in Australia that if all the childcare workers in Australia were men, the pay would be as low as it is.”

I have been fighting with my colleagues in the Big Steps campaign to raise the wages of early childhood educators for years. It was affirming to finally hear government ministers state unequivocally that we are underpaid, unsupported and disrespected. I have written and spoken publicly about the need for the community to recognise and support our work.

Despite all this, I believe that this funding package has the potential to disastrously undermine the Early Childhood Education ECEC sector and the campaign for professional wages.

The EYQF is a single pot of money, and will only last for two years from July 2013. To get a share, services and organisations must have an approved Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that factors in the wage increases, and will also need to evidence that they are actively working towards meeting the Federal Government’s new National Quality Standards for ECEC.

The wages increases range in scale from about $3 per hour for a Certificate III-qualified educator, to over $6 for an early childhood teacher.

The major catch is that only about 40 per cent of ECEC centres will be eligible for this funding. They will have to apply to the EYQF, meet the evidence criteria, and once the funding has run out – that’s it.

So the Government’s solution to the identified problem of gender-based wage inequity is an undignified race to see who can apply for the limited funds — putting ECEC organisations in the position of squabbling over the donation jar.

The Government concedes that the EYQF will be a short-term measure. The real focus will be to supporting a wage equity case at Fair Work Australia.

This is a worthy aim, but in the meantime the symptoms of this temporary scheme won’t help a struggling sector. Competition over a small pool of funds is likely to deepen the divide between not-for-profit and private providers, who are already fighting over an ever-dwindling number of qualified educators.

Staff will simply shift employers to those who have been fortunate enough to access funding, leaving huge staff shortages in other parts of the sector — directly disadvantaging children.

As I have written before, the ECEC sector is already split between community-based not-for-profit operations, and private operators.

The Government’s generous childcare subsidies have allowed private operators to grow and thrive. It’s also given them plenty to spend on advocacy against improvements to quality and educator-child ratios.

In effect, they’re is paying the private operators to work against them, allowing them to employ lobbyists and use conservative media connections to undermine attempts to reform the sector and provide greater outcomes for children.

It is understandable that the Government does not want additional funding going to those centres. However, the current structure of the sector as a free-market free-for-all is the direct responsibility of the government, who refused to heed the lessons of the 2008 ABC Learning collapse and repudiate the for-profit model of early childhood education and care.

United Voice, the union for early childhood educators (who negotiated this deal), are understandably keen to ensure that their members benefit as opposed to private operators who are uniformly anti-union.

I also firmly believe that early childhood educators should join their union and actively work towards the Big Steps campaign, as the power of collective action to address injustice has been demonstrated time and time again in other low-paid and low-valued work (such as nursing and aged care).

But celebrating a deal that segregates the sector reflects the failure of those involved to understand that this fight is not about individuals, but the role of an early childhood educator. This is bigger than any one campaign, or any one announcement.

As with Fair Work’s decision that the Social and Community Awards wage rate must rise, this is about valuing the work of those who work with young children and removing continuing wage discrimination on the basis of gender.

The government has publicly acknowledged (finally) that the early childhood educator role is undervalued. The professional standing and respect of the entire sector, not a select few.

We either value educators enough to treat all of them with the same respect and recognition, or we pick and choose — devaluing us all.

This article was originally published by New Matilda on April 22, 2013.