It’s time for a new vision for Early Childhood Education and Care
Recent years have exposed the fault lines in Australia’s Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) system for all to see. Confusion and chaos during the COVID pandemic, childcare deserts, workforce shortages and spiralling costs reveal a sector no longer fit for purpose. Now is the time for a bold reimagining of the Early Childhood system, one that is not tied to outdated structures and objectives with limited scope.
CELA welcomes this Inquiry and the renewed commitment of the Australian Government to focus on value and opportunity for the Early Childhood Education and Care sector. We commend the Government on its recognition of the ECEC sector as "an essential part of Australia’s education system" and its ambition to deliver "universal, affordable ECEC – in the great tradition of universal Medicare and universal superannuation."1
The current sector is hamstrung in its ability to meet this objective due to persistent confusion and inconsistency of policy objective. The primary funding model of the Child Care Subsidy (CCS) was designed as a welfare payment to families to support workforce participation. As a demand driven funding model, focused on lowering parents’ out of pocket costs, contributing to improved education and development outcomes for children were not part of the primary policy design. Developments in recent decades have shown the significant value of investing in quality education and care from birth to age five for improved child outcomes and reduced poverty and social inequality. Outdated distinctions between "care" and "education", and the ages at which these happen, are limiting the impact of Federal and State government investment. This confusion of purpose is contributing to a system that is expensive, difficult to navigate and failing to meet its full potential for social and economic impact.
To meet the objective of a universal, affordable ECEC sector we must reset the policy objectives and put children and their needs at the heart of the system. Recognising that, by first meeting the needs of children, the benefits to families and the economy will flow.
Currently we recognise this benefit for some children, but not all. School aged children are entitled to 30 hours per week of high-quality public education. In the year before school, children are entitled to 15 hours of preschool or kindergarten. States including New South Wales and Victoria are already expanding this to 30 hours free entitlement for all children. Yet, under the current funding models, children under these ages are not entitled to universal access to quality early learning and care. Instead, their access is dictated by their parents work and financial status. Recognising that 90% of a child’s development occurs in the first five years, a system that excludes our youngest learners will never see the full benefits of investment.
An Early Childhood Education and Care system that is fit for the future is one that works towards a vision of:
- Guaranteed universal access to quality early childhood education and care from birth to school age in the setting that suits them of up to 30 hours / 3 days a week. This includes retention of the Child Care Subsidy (CCS) for additional hours beyond the minimum guarantee, to support families to work the hours they choose.
- A strong, stable, and continuously improving, professionally paid and respected early childhood workforce.
- Universal high-quality programming and practices, regardless of location or service type, which are continuously improving.
- A stable and balanced sector which supports quality, access and choice.
With these foundations in place, Australia will see the full benefits of:
- A quality early learning system
- Improved health and developmental outcomes for children
- Reduced social inequity, as well as increased workforce participation and women’s economic equality.
Summary of Recommendations
Universal access – towards 30 hours free early childhood education and care from birth to school
1. That Australia’s ECEC policy is reset with children’s access to high quality education and care as the primary objective.
2. That ECEC funding should work towards delivering a universal entitlement to 30 hours per week of free early childhood education and care from birth to school age across all service types, provided through block funding. 3. That a future universal entitlement includes up to full time (50) hours per week of free ECEC for vulnerable children and families.
4. That State and Federal Governments coordinate the delivery of universal access arrangements to limit funding complexity and to support families to access the Early Childhood Education and Care that suits their needs.
5. That the existing Child Care Subsidy (CCS) scheme, with appropriate fee controls, continues to support workforce participation of families for hours beyond 30 hours, from birth to 12 years of age.
6. That the Activity Test is abolished for all hours of ECEC.
Investing in a professional ECEC workforce
7. That the Federal Government participates in and provides funding support for nationally coordinated Multiple Employer Agreements across the early childhood sector. This will deliver wages and conditions in line with comparable work in the education and care sectors.
8. That Government funding for wages and conditions is provided to services demonstrating compliance with the improved minimum standards, and transition to replicate New Zealand and Victorian models of higher block subsidy rates for services which pay the improved minimum pay and conditions.
9. That all recommendations of the Children’s Education and Care National Workforce Strategy be implemented.
10. That the proposed national Early Childhood Teacher Registration Scheme be extended to include early childhood educators.
11. That services are supported to provide accredited, coordinated professional development for all early childhood educators and teachers linked to quality areas.
12. That appropriate measures for immigration of suitably qualified educators and teachers are explored that will support the local ECEC sector and workforce.
13. That State and Federal Governments coordinate policies to support ECEC educator and teacher training, quality and retention.
Ensuring high quality early educating and care
14. That funding to State Governments to deliver assessment and rating programs is sufficient to meet the original goals as set out by the National Quality Standard (NQS).
15. That ACECQA is maintained and funded to deliver a nationally consistent quality program for ECEC services.
16. That current enforcement options for non-improving/ non-compliant services are reviewed for their effectiveness in ensuring minimum service quality and child safety. The review should consider establishing an "administration option" for services which need urgent intervention to ensure the safety of children, or services which do not demonstrate improvement.
A balanced sector for quality, access, and choice
17. That Local, State and Federal governments coordinate to monitor ECEC service provision and ensure services are delivered in line with demand and community needs.
18. That models to provide capital funding to support the establishment of new community led services are investigated, especially in areas of community demand.
19. That programs are developed in conjunction with State and Local governments to provide governance, business and management support to communities to establish and maintain community led services.
DOWNLOAD THE SUBMISSION
1 Productivity Commission, March 2023: Early Childhood Education and Care – Call for Submissions. https://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/current/childhood/call-for-submissions