Written by Lee Gane
A very real concern for our most vulnerable children is the cut in eligible hours from 24 to 12 hours per week under the proposed Jobs for Families package. This is a 50% decrease in current eligible hours – hours which for some vulnerable families are presently not enough.
I recently heard of a family with two children: a toddler and a seriously ill infant at home in need of constant care and attention. These parents are unable to get even an extra day under the current 24 eligible hours for their toddler. All the parents wanted was the opportunity to provide the undivided attention and support that is much needed in order to give their baby the best chance of survival. Another service provider spoke of a mother suffering from post-natal depression in desperate need of additional hours, but who is ineligible. These are just two circumstances where a reduction in eligible hours will result in negative impacts.
Education and care is critical to the health, wellbeing and productivity of our nation, yet is viewed as a burden and not an investment. Research has time and time again demonstrated that $1 invested in quality early learning results in a return to society of $17. The Mitchell Report – Quality Early Education for All draws on findings from PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia (PWC) who modelled a range of impacts associated with increased access to quality early learning programs and found yield benefits in 2014 of up to $10.3 billion by 2050; if the children who currently do not access any quality early learning programs are included, the results increased to $13.3 billion by 2050. This is just the tip of the iceberg in relation to the benefits which have been globally acknowledged with many countries now increasing access to free early learning programs for children before formal schooling. Yet in Australia we are bucking international trends and ignoring all of the research by halving children’s access to quality early learning opportunities – this is a huge step backwards.
If children are only eligible for 12 hours per week access, then occupancy rates in low socio-economic areas will be halved and let’s face it that is what is going to happen. Children will no longer attend an education and care setting 2 days a week as they will only have support for 1 day a week in the current Long Day Care attendance structures. Many quality service providers currently only offer 2 days per week in their programs because they know how important it is for children to be able to settle and form a secure attachment with an educator. Education and care professionals know the benefits of attending a quality early learning program for all children and especially for society’s most vulnerable children. They will tell you that in the life of a small child, attending only 1 day per week can be very stressful. The flow on effects for the child include the extra length of time it takes to develop feelings of safety and security which then impacts on the child’s ability to explore, socialise and engage in any learning opportunities.
Now, let’s get down to the glaring gaps in the discussion – the implications of reduced eligible CCB hours on the education and care workforce and for the viability of some services. I hold grave concerns for the education and care workforce if the Jobs for Families package gets through parliament.
Halving eligible hours is effectively halving the enrolments and the workforce in some services.
Despite many Early Childhood Education and Care services in cities reporting waitlists and the need for more places, many services outside of the cities actually have vacancies with an average occupancy rate of only 60% to 80%. The impact of this will be felt the hardest in low socio-economic communities where there are high attendances from families who are able to currently access 24 eligible hours. In these areas, attendances will fall by half. Many of these services may not be able to sustain these losses, resulting in possible service closures or an increase in costs to families as services try to remain viable. The closure of services will remove or limit opportunities for families in some communities as working parents with a greater number of eligible hours will be preferenced to ensure a services viability. This will either push families out of care or into poorer quality or more affordable alternatives taking away their choice or even their access to a quality early learning program for their child/ren and the opportunities that attending quality early learning programs offer.
One suggested option is for services to look at halving the proposed 12 eligible hours for families and deliver two 6 hour sessional programs. What this looks like would be determined by each education and care service. Some examples may include a morning or afternoon session or maybe 6 hrs in the middle of the day (9-3) with additional fees for parents who need an early start or late pick up. Flexible delivery of education and care programs have already been trialled with very little success, which has me questioning the future viability of such a move on a national scale.
I recently spoke with a provider who identified that administering a casual program would be an administrative nightmare and because of greater administrative burden on the service that would need to be costed, these costs would then be passed onto families. In order to keep their operating costs down (some for profits and others for viability) already send educators home as soon as children are collected of an afternoon and the child to staff ratios drop. This practice would become more prevalent with EC practitioners being sent home earlier or rostered around the children’s sessional attendances. If the service only has half the current attendances or are delivering sessional programs around the reduced eligible hours, the EC Workforce can only look forward to becoming more flexible and responsive to the employer needs resulting in a more casualised workforce. In turn this would increase the levels of stress and anxiety already experienced by the workforce which has significant implications on their ability to function effectively as reflective practitioners in their education and care settings.
EC practitioners across the country already struggle to make ends meet financially on wages that are not commensurate with their qualifications or the work being undertaken. Casualising the workforce will only increase the staffing shortages as the workforce moves to seek secure employment outside of their chosen profession. This will make it even more difficult to provide continuity of care for children, to develop secure trusting relationships with a significant practitioner and to achieve quality outcomes for children than it currently is, in an environment that already loses on average 180 EC practitioners every week. Approximately 70% of the EC Workforce have only been in their role for 1-3 years with around 9% of the EC Workforce remaining in the profession for 10 yrs.
I spoke with Hon Kate Ellis MP about my concerns for the EC Workforce and she told me that it was difficult to argue when the major players in the education and care environment are supporting the Jobs for Families package with a minor increase to 15 hrs per fortnight from the proposed 12hrs. What I am hearing across the field is that major providers have the capacity to deliver a more flexible program for families within the proposed 15 eligible hrs per week. My question is what about the 83% of small private providers? Can they deliver against this model of sessional hours? It will require a complete restructure of their services and their workforce.
Is this what the top end of the market place is hoping for? I am told the big providers will just swoop in and snap up the struggling smaller providers. This will result in the big providers gaining a monopoly in the education and care market, which will further reduce choice and competition in the market place.
Only when the true value of providing quality early learning programs (not just childcare) for children, delivered by highly skilled and qualified EC Practitioners (ECTs, Educators, support staff) are recognised in the terms of the substantial social and fiscal benefits for our nation’s future will we ever get off this treadmill. Until then, as a nation we can look forward to falling literacy, lowering resilience, increases in welfare dependency, higher rates of substance abuse, ballooning health issues and even more violence in our streets.
If we want real social, economic and academic change, our nation needs to ensure all children have access to, at the very least a minimum of 2 full days (24hrs) per week in a quality education and care program with consistency in the presence and qualifications of EC practitioners delivering the programs. Quality outcomes for children hinge on a secure relationship with significant adults in their life. Children need to feel valued, they need to feel safe and secure and that will be difficult maybe impossible in a workplace with a predominantly casual workforce.
Education and care is a specialised field within education. As professionals, educators have opinions: informed educated, grounded opinions. Decision makers need to consult more broadly with Education and Care practitioners who are a rich and invaluable source of information for families, leaders, communities, businesses and governments to draw on. Their expertise and knowledge of child development and the delivery of quality early learning programs deserve to be heard and included in all conversations that relate to the education and care of children and the delivery of education and care programs.
We are asking you as an education and care professional to take a moment to consider what the implications might be for families and the workforce in your education and care setting and to share your thoughts with us by completing this very short survey.