Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
An equal start?Providing quality early education and care for disadvantaged children$

Ludovica Gambaro, Kitty Stewart, and Jane Waldfogel

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781447310518

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447310518.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM POLICY PRESS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.policypress.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Policy Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in PPSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 19 September 2021

Early education and care in Australia

Early education and care in Australia

Equity in a mixed market-based system?

Chapter:
(p.171) Eight Early education and care in Australia
Source:
An equal start?
Author(s):

Deborah Brennan

Marianne Fenech

Publisher:
Policy Press
DOI:10.1332/policypress/9781447310518.003.0008

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the extent to which disadvantaged children are able to access high quality early childhood education and care in Australia. It describes current national initiatives include an aspiration to provide all children with high quality preschool, staffed by trained teachers, in the year before school entry, and efforts to improve quality through an early years learning framework. However, the chapter also points to considerable remaining local and state variation, and to concerns about whether children from lower income families will be priced out by quality improvements. The preschool offer is not free, although it is intended that cost should not be a barrier to entry. Enrolment is not universal and children from low income families are less likely to attend than their higher income peers. A further complicating factor in the Australian context is the large role that has been played by the private sector, including for-profit providers.

Keywords:   early childhood education and care, disadvantaged children, ECEC, childcare, access to quality education, Australia

Introduction

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is a high-profile political issue in Australia. In 2008, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised ‘a world-class system of integrated early childhood learning and childcare’ designed to ‘boost national productivity, lift labour force participation, contribute to social inclusion and be the first step towards an “education revolution”’. A year later, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), representing the Commonwealth, States, Territories and local government, endorsed an early childhood development strategy encompassing children from birth to eight years. Investing in the Early Years:A National Childhood Development Strategy sets out a ‘comprehensive response to evidence about the importance of early childhood development and the benefits – and cost-effectiveness – of ensuring all children experience a positive early childhood’ (COAG, 2009a).

As part of this new commitment to child wellbeing, the ECEC sector has undergone rapid and far-reaching reform. Again through COAG, governments have adopted consistent standards for both long day-care centres1 and preschools (COAG, 2009b). The standards apply equally to all mainstream services, whether private for-profit, nonprofit or government-run.2 Governments have also endorsed the goal of universal access to preschool education, meaning that all children will have access to ‘a quality early childhood education programme … delivered by a four-year university trained early childhood teacher, for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, in the year before formal schooling’ by 2013 (COAG, 2009d, p 5). Importantly, universal access is about participation in a particular type of programme rather than attendance at a particular type of service; a preschool programme can be delivered in a (p.172) long day-care centre, a dedicated preschool/ kindergarten3 or a mobile service that takes early learning experiences to children in remote communities. Australia's commitment to preschool for all children is not as far-reaching as similar initiatives in other countries. The phrase ‘universal access’ expresses an official aspiration, but does not establish an entitlement for children. And the 15 hours are not necessarily free; rather, governments have adopted the more nebulous goal of ensuring that ‘cost is not a barrier to access’ (COAG, 2009d, p 6).

An important aspect of the quality agenda is the endorsement of a national early childhood curriculum, the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) (COAG, 2009c). The EYLF sets out the principles, practices and outcomes required to support children's learning from birth, and to ensure a smooth transition to school. It has a strong emphasis on play-based learning and recognises the importance of communication and language, including early literacy and numeracy, social and emotional development.

How far has this agenda progressed, and what are its implications for children from low-income families and those experiencing other forms of disadvantage? We begin by describing current patterns of participation in ECEC, highlighting the situation of low-income children, indigenous children, children with language backgrounds other than English, including refugee and migrant children, and children with disabilities. Next, we outline the institutional and policy context that frames Australian ECEC, noting the different roles of the Commonwealth and the States4 and the entrenched division between education and care that reflects Australian federalism. We then describe Australia's reform agenda in more detail, outlining the EYLF, regulatory requirements and measures to strengthen the early childhood workforce. We conclude with some reflections on the prospects for universal access to high-quality ECEC within Australia's current policy settings and constraints.

Participation in Australian ECEC: a blurred snapshot

Multiple institutions and organisations are involved in funding and delivering ECEC services in Australia. The lines of responsibility between them are not always clear and data are sometimes inadequate – which is why we describe this as a ‘blurred’ snapshot. Policy responsibility for ECEC is shared between the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments.5 Services are delivered through a mixed market that includes government, for-profit, non-profit and community-based providers (PWC, 2011, p 14). A longstanding (p.173) division persists between services perceived to offer ‘care’ and those deemed ‘educational’. Most Commonwealth funds are targeted towards services that support paid work or other forms of economic and social participation. The main Commonwealth-supported services for children below school age are long day-care centres, family day-care6 and in-home care.7 Such services typically cater for children from birth to school age and are open or available for at least eight hours care per day throughout the year. Educational services such as preschool or kindergarten generally cater for children in the year or two before school and offer half-day sessions or short days (9.00am–3.00pm) during school terms. These are mainly funded by State governments. In several States, preschool is offered free or at negligible cost, and is often co-located with primary schools. Family day-care provides a service for families who prefer home-based care; it also operates as a complement to preschool, with 46% of family day-care schemes providing ‘wrap-around’ services (Productivity Commission, 2011, p 117). Formal, regulated services are complemented by the informal care provided by grandparents and other relatives, friends and nannies.

Just over half (55%) of all children below school age participate in either formal or informal childcare, or both. This proportion has not changed greatly since 1996, but participation in formal, regulated services has increased markedly. Attendance at long day-care has grown strongly, with 31% of children below school age participating in 2011, compared with 13% in 1996. In the same period, the proportion of children using informal care has declined from 30% to 22% (see Table 8.1). Thus, it seems, formal services are increasingly replacing informal and family care.

Participation in childcare varies according to parents' employment status. In comparison with similar countries, Australia has a low level of labour force participation: 52% of mothers of children below school age are workforce participants, many working part time (ABS, 2008). In couple families where both parents are employed, 63% of children usually attend childcare; where only one parent in a couple is employed, 31%; and where neither parent is employed, just 25%. Similar patterns are evident in sole-parent households – 82% of children in sole-parent families where the parent is employed participate in ECEC, compared with 49% where the parent is not employed (ABS, 2012a). Access to ECEC also varies with the age of the child.8 The highest level of participation is among two- and three-year-olds: 54% of children in this age group usually attend formal care and 40% participate in informal care. Average weekly hours of attendance vary by service type; children in long day-care centres typically attend for just under (p.174)

Table 8.1: Australia: Children aged 0–4 yrs, type of care attended, 1996–2011

1996 (%)

1999 (%)

2002 (%)

2005 (%)

2008 (%)

2011 (%)

Children who attend childcare

54

59

56

60

59

55

Formal care

Long day care

13

18

23

24

28

31

Family day care

6

6

6

7

4

4

Occasional care

4

3

3

4

2

2

Before and after school care

4

2

4

2

2

0

Other formal care

1

1

1

1

1

0

Total formal care

24

27

32

35

34

37

Informal care

Grandparent

n/a

30

25

28

29

22

Brother/sister

2

1

1

0

0

1

Non-resident parent

n/a

2

2

3

3

3

Other relative

30

5

5

4

5

4

Other person

10

8

7

5

5

4

Total informal care

40

43

37

38

38

31

Children in formal care only

14

16

19

22

21

24

Children in informal care only

30

32

24

25

26

18

Children in formal and informal care

10

11

13

14

13

12

Children who did not attend childcare

46

41

44

40

41

45

Note: Children may be attending more than one form of care, hence totals do not add up.

Source: ABS (2012a, Table 1)

26 hours, and those participating in family day-care around 20 hours per week (Productivity Commission, 2012, 3.27).

Family income plays a crucial role in mediating access to childcare. In families with a combined weekly income of AUD$2,000 or more, 52% of 0- to 14-year-old children regularly participate in childcare, compared with 25% in families with a weekly income of AUD$800 or less. Family income also affects the types of care used. Children whose parents' weekly income exceeds AUD$2,000 are more likely than those earning less than AUD$800 to use both formal care (18% and 11% respectively) and informal care (24% and 13% respectively). Families earning AUD$800–999 per week are the least likely to use either formal or informal childcare (see Table 8.2).

Although the Australian government has identified participation by children from particular target groups as a key objective for services (p.175)

Table 8.2: Australia: Children aged 0–14 yrs in couple families, type of care usuallya attended, by weekly income of parents, 2008 (%) (AUD$)

Type of care

Less than 800

800-999

1,000-1,199

1,200-1,399

1,400-1,999

2,000 or more

Total

Children with usual childcare arrangements

25

30

37

40

45

52

41

Children in formal care only

11

12

14

17

16

18

15

Children in informal care only

13

16

18

17

21

24

20

Children in both informal and formal care

2b

2b

5

6

7

10

6

Children with no usual childcare arrangements

75

70

63

60

55

48

59

Notes:

(a) ‘Usually’ refers to a child's typical attendance at childcare, including hours and costs.

(b) Estimate has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution. Children with more than one source of childcare are only counted once. Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

Source: ABS (2009)

such as long day-care, family day-care and in-home care, children from most of these groups are under-represented. Children from non-English-speaking backgrounds make up almost 19% of three- to five-year-old children in the community, for example, but just over 12% of enrolments in childcare services. Children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) backgrounds represent 4.7% of this age group, but only 2% of children in approved care. Children with disabilities make up 6.3% of three- to five-year-olds, but only 5.4% of those attending Commonwealth approved care. Children from both regional and remote parts of Australia are under-represented (see Table 8.3).

Participation in state-funded preschool services is measured separately from participation in Commonwealth-funded childcare. Although there is a major effort underway to improve data collection, it is not yet possible to present a comprehensive picture of participation in all ECEC services. For example, there is no unique ‘child identifier’ that would overcome the problem of double-counting of children enrolled in both state-funded preschools and Australian government-funded childcare services. Recently, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has published ‘experimental estimates’ of participation in preschool. These adopt a relatively strict view of preschool participation: a child must be three to six years old and attend a preschool programme (p.176)

Table 8.3: Australia: Proportion of children aged 0–5 yrs from special groups attending Australian government-approved childcare services, 2011 (%)

In approved childcare services

In the community

Children from non-English-speaking backgrounds

15.0

20.1

Indigenous children

2.0

4.7

Children from low-income families

24.8

27.1

Children with a disability

2.5

4.0

Children from regional areas

28.7

31.5

Children from remote areas

1.0

3.1

Source: Productivity Commission (2012), Indigenous Compendium, Table 3A.14

(defined as ‘a structured, play-based learning programme, usually provided… on a sessional basis’) by a four-year university qualified teacher. These estimates suggest that almost 81% of children aged four and five years, including 75% of ATSI children, are enrolled in preschool programmes (ABS, 2012b).

The engagement of ATSI children in early childhood services is of particular importance given the levels of disadvantage in their communities. Most ATSI children who participate in ECEC services are enrolled in mainstream services that cater for both non-indigenous and indigenous children (Productivity Commission, 2012, p 349). Across Australia, there are some 270 indigenous-focused services, including multifunctional Aboriginal children's services, crèches, playgroups, outside school hours care and mobile services designed to meet the needs of local indigenous families. Some mainstream services work closely and productively with indigenous families and communities, but this cannot be said of all. The position of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) is that all ECEC services should engage in effective and respectful partnerships with indigenous communities (SNAICC, 2012).

The Australian Early Development Index (AEDI), a population measure of children's health and development, provides a valuable source of data for understanding children's development when they start school. This is particularly useful given the lack of data linking socio-economic status to the quality of children's ECEC experiences. The AEDI is based on a checklist completed by teachers during children's first year of schooling. It measures development in five domains: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge. (p.177) The first round of the AEDI, completed in 2009, revealed that almost one-quarter of Australia's children are developmentally vulnerable in one or more of the specified domains. Almost twice as many indigenous children – 48% – were considered vulnerable, as were 32% of children from language backgrounds other than English. AEDI data suggest that participation in high-quality early childhood education is skewed towards more advantaged populations (AIHW, 2012).

Policy context

Divided responsibilities and a mixed market

The Australian government and the State and Territory governments have distinct but overlapping responsibilities in ECEC. Historically, most States have funded educationally focused preschool services, but done little to support forms of provision that meet the needs of working parents. The Australian government entered the early childhood field in a significant way in 1972 with the passage of the Child Care Act, authorising grants to non-profit childcare centres (Spearritt, 1974). The Act was designed to facilitate the labour force participation of mothers of young children and to complement preschool services funded by the States. The Whitlam government (1972–75) expanded federal involvement in ECEC, increasing its financial commitment and supporting new service types such as family day-care and outside school hours care. Over the ensuing years, the Commonwealth came to dominate both expenditure and policy making. The fact that its focus has predominantly been on supporting parental labour force participation has contributed to the perception that state-funded services are about ‘education’, while Commonwealth-funded services provide ‘childcare’. This characterisation does not do justice to the complexities of policy making or provision at either level, but it is a frequently used shorthand for the division that has emerged between the two levels of government (Brennan, 2010).

The mix of ECEC providers varies significantly between States and between service types. Approximately two-thirds of centre-based childcare services operate as private, for-profit businesses (DEEWR, 2010); almost all home-based services, such as family day-care, are run by community-based and non-profit organisations. Non-profit organisations deliver the majority of preschool services along the east coast, while State governments are the predominant providers in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania.

(p.178) In recent years, governments have taken steps to establish a more integrated approach to ECEC. Within the Australian government, an Office of Early Childhood Education and Child Care, located in the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, has responsibility for children's services. Previously, this function was based in an Office of Child Care located in the Social Welfare Department. Similar changes have occurred in most States. Almost half of all long day-care centres now offer preschool programmes and some preschools offer extended hours or ‘wrap-around’ care to accommodate employed parents. At least 40% of children who attend preschool do so within childcare services (ABS, 2012a). Despite these advances towards greater integration, differences between education and care remain embedded in the funding for different service types. Most State governments directly fund the capital and operational costs of preschools (a supply-side approach) while, with some exceptions,9 the Commonwealth employs demand-side strategies to reduce the costs to parents of purchasing care in a mixed market. Wages and industrial conditions differ between the sectors (Brennan, 1998; Productivity Commission, 2011).

Privatisation and the growth of corporate childcare

In the late 1980s, following sustained lobbying by private providers, the federal Labor government amended the Child Care Act, allowing subsidies to be paid to users of for-profit as well as non-profit long day-care centres – a move that was bitterly divisive within the party. Those who supported it argued that families in similar circumstances should receive equal access to subsidies whether or not the childcare service they used was run on a for-profit basis. Opponents countered that the care of children should be a public responsibility rather than an opportunity for profit making. Concerns were also expressed about the standard of care in for-profit centres. In response, the federal government introduced a Quality Improvement and Accreditation Scheme (QIAS). Australia thus had a double regulatory system: the States and Territories regulated measurable inputs such as staff numbers and qualifications, while the Commonwealth, through its QIAS system, assessed ‘process’ factors such as the quality of interactions between staff, children and parents, the adequacy of individualised learning plans and evidence of management and record-keeping practices that support health, nutrition and learning. Parents could access Commonwealth subsidies only if the long day-care services they used met State/ Territory regulations and participated in the QIAS.

(p.179) The centre-right government of Prime Minister John Howard (1996–2007) intensified the marketisation of long day-care. Howard removed the small operational subsidies that had been paid to nonprofit services under Labor, making clear that the private sector would be the preferred provider of services for young children. Business responded accordingly (Brennan, 2007a, 2007b). In 2001, ABC Learning became Australia's first publicly listed childcare corporation. Other companies followed suit and, within a few years, Australia had experienced not merely an expansion of for-profit childcare at the expense of non-profit provision, but a shift towards corporate care – that is, care provided by companies whose shares are traded on the stock exchange (Sumsion, 2012). By listing on the exchange, ABC gained access to significant amounts of capital, enabling it to expand far more rapidly than non-profit services (Newberry and Brennan, 2013).

ABC adopted an aggressive expansion strategy. It quickly absorbed most of its corporate rivals and took over hundreds of independent centres, becoming the dominant player in Australian long day-care (Ellis, 2009). At the height of its success, ABC's chief executive officer (CEO) was Australia's richest person under 40, his personal wealth estimated at AUD$272 million (Farouque, 2006). Despite its meteoric rise on the share market, ABC's business model of continuous growth and expansion was unsustainable, and in 2008 the company went into receivership. At the time of its collapse, ABC owned approximately 25% of long day-care services in Australia. These catered for 120,000 children and employed 16,000 staff (Ellis, 2009). When the company went into receivership, 55 centres closed immediately and the government spent AUD$24 million keeping the remainder open while their viability was assessed. In December 2009, four of Australia's largest charities, working in conjunction with Social Ventures Australia, formed a new consortium called GoodStart in order to purchase more than 650 former ABC centres from the receivers. Operating as a nonprofit organisation, GoodStart is committed to reinvesting its surplus into improvements in the quality of services across the sector. As a result of the GoodStart purchase, the proportion of services run by for-profit organisations fell from 88% to 66% (DEEWR, 2010).

Funding and subsidies

In 2010–11, the Commonwealth provided AUD$4.2 billion to help families purchase childcare from approved providers (which can be for-profit, non-profit or government-run). The States collectively spent approximately AUD$1 billion on preschool education and (p.180) AUD$149 million on childcare (Productivity Commission, 2012, Tables 3A.3, 3A.5). State and Territory governments vary markedly in the scale of their investment in preschool and other children's services. New South Wales spends AUD$190 per child per year, for example, compared with the Northern Territory's AUD$1,033 (see Table 8.4). The cost of preschool to families reflects these differences. In 2008, preschool was free or virtually free in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and both Territories, while the median cost was AUD$27 per day in New South Wales.

The Australian government helps families with the costs of childcare through two mechanisms: Child Care Benefit (CCB), which is means-tested and available to families regardless of their workforce status, and Child Care Rebate (CCR), which is not means-tested but is only available to parents who are working, studying or training, and who use approved care.

The rate of CCB varies according to family income and the number of children enrolled in approved care. Working parents using approved services such as long day-care, family day-care or in-home care are eligible for up to 50 hours CCB for each child below school age. Low-income families can claim up to AUD$3.90 per hour, or AUD$195 per week. Families using registered care such as nannies can claim only six cents per hour or AUD$32 per week, regardless of income. CCB is usually paid directly to the service provider, thus reducing upfront fees and obviating the need to make claims and wait for reimbursement. Parents who are not working, studying or training can claim up to 24 hours' CCB per week for approved care, but are required to pay the gap between CCB and the actual fee charged by the service. An important exception is that parents receiving Income Support (Unemployment Benefits or Parenting Payment, for example) who are seeking work, studying, training or undertaking rehabilitation in order to enter the workforce are eligible for additional assistance. Jobs, Education and Training (JET) Child Care Fee Assistance pays most

Table 8.4: Australia: Total State and Territory government real expenditure on children's services per child in the community aged 0–12 yrs ($/child), 2010–11 (AuD$)

NSW

Vic

Qld

WA

SA

Tas

ACT

NT

Aust

190

266

204

556

499

395

489

1,033

291

Notes: NSW – New South Wales; Vic – Victoria; Qld – Queensland; WA – Western Australia; SA – South Australia; Tas – Tasmania; ACT – Australian Capital Territory; NT – Northern Territory; Aust – Australia.

Source: Productivity Commission (2012, Table 3A.37)

(p.181)

Table 8.5: Australia: Differences between approved care and registered care

Approved care

Registered care

What is it?

Services that meet ACECQA standards and open at least 8 hours per day, 48 weeks per year may be approved by the Australian government. Most long day-care, family day-care and in-home care services are approved. Most preschools are not approved, even if they meet ACECQA standards, because of their short opening hours

Grandparents and other relatives, friends and nannies can register with the Australian Government as carers. Individuals working in preschools or private schools may register in some circumstances

Can parents claim CCB?

Parents using approved care may claim up to 50 hours per week CCB if they meet the ‘work, study, training’ test. They may claim up to 24 hours CCB if they do not meet this test. The amount of CCB depends on family income, number of children in approved care and hours of care used. The maximum is AUD$195 per week

Parents using registered care may claim the minimum rate of CCB (AUD$32 per week) if they meet the ‘work, study, training test’

Can parents claim CCR?

Parents who meet the work, study, training test may claim CCR in addition to CCB. CCR pays 50% of out-ofpocket expenses up to a maximum of AUD$15,000 per child per year

Parents using registered care are not eligible to claim CCR

of the ‘gap fee’ for these parents, at least for a limited time, requiring them to make a co-contribution of AUD$1 for each hour of care (DHS, 2012).

On top of CCB, CCR helps working parents by rebating 50% of their out-of-pocket childcare expenses up to a maximum of AUD$15,000 per year per child. CCR is not means-tested, and families do not need to apply for CCR; it is paid automatically if they are eligible. Since high-income families are the most likely to use long hours of high-cost, approved childcare, the effect of CCR is twofold: first, it delivers large benefits to high-income families; and second, it reduces the incentive for providers to keep a lid on fees. Some lobby groups representing professional women have campaigned to have the cap on CCR removed so that parents with out-of-pocket expenses exceeding AUD$15,000 per child can claim additional benefits. These groups have also called for CCR to be extended to nannies and au pairs – currently excluded because they are not ‘approved’ for CCB purposes (Karvelas, 2012a). Although the opposition parties have expressed sympathy with this position, they have not committed to introducing subsidies for nanny care.

(p.182) Almost all (98%) of families using approved care receive either CCB or CCR; close to three-quarters (72%) of these receive both subsidies. About half the remainder receive only CCB (probably because they use registered rather than approved care and are thus not eligible for CCR) and the other half receive only CCR (most likely because their combined family income renders them ineligible for CCB) (DEEWR, 2012, p 26).

How effective are Commonwealth subsidies at reducing childcare costs? Modelling suggests that they are very effective. Across a wide range of incomes, families require 7–8% of their disposable income to pay for 50 hours of care, after subsidies are taken into account (see Table 8.6). This very positive picture is, however, tempered by the fact that the full rate of CCB is only available in respect of ‘approved’ services and, in order to be approved, services must not only meet minimum quality standards (discussed in the next section) but also be open for at least eight hours per day for 48 weeks per year. State-funded preschools are not approved for CCB purposes because of their limited opening hours.

The rules governing Commonwealth childcare subsidies result in hardship for families using registered care for work-related purposes. As noted above, the most CCB that can be claimed by a family using a registered service is six cents per hour or AUD$32 per week, and users of registered care are not eligible for CCR, regardless of income or workforce status. The distinction between ‘approved’ and ‘registered’ care can be confusing – especially for parents who assume that a service that meets regulatory standards will be ‘approved’ and thus eligible to attract CCB

Table 8.6: Australia: National Quality Standard (NQS) ratios and year these come into effect, grandfathered ratios and ratios recommended by Early Childhood Australia

Age of child

NQS ratios and year these come into effect

Grandfathered ratios

Early Childhood Australia's recommended ratios

Birth–12 months

1:4 (2012)

N/A

1:3

13–24 months

1:4 (2012)

N/A

1:4

25–35 months

1:5 (2016)

VIC = 1:4

1:5

3 years

1:11 (2016)

NSW, SA, Tas, WA = 1:10

1:8

4 years

1:11 (2016)

NSW, SA, Tas, WA = 1:10

1:10

Source: Productivity Commission (2011)

.

(p.183) Despite its strengths, the fact that the Australian childcare system is based in market principles is a major limitation to inclusivity and equity. Parents are expected to be active consumers and to compare services, prices and standards in order to obtain an optimal service. They are presumed to have equal access to information and to be prepared to discipline providers by switching services if they are inadequate or unsuitable. Other than the existence of subsidies, there are few measures that actively support or encourage the enrolment and participation of low-income and disadvantaged children in early childhood services. Parents need to find out about the subsidies, understand them, access them, and to pay any gap that remains.

ECEC quality agenda

Australia's national agenda has a number of elements designed to work together to improve quality (see Figure 8.1). The National Quality Framework (NQF) involves a new quality assurance system that replaces the disparate licensing systems previously operated by the various States and Territories. Its implementation is overseen by a newly established statutory authority, the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA).

Early education and care in AustraliaEquity in a mixed market-based system?

Figure 8.1: Australia: National Quality Agenda for early childhood education and care

(p.184) The NQF started to come into effect in 2012. It introduces nationally consistent staff-to-child ratios and staff qualifications that will be phased in over eight years. From January 2014, a university-qualified early childhood teacher will be required in all mainstream long day-care centres and preschools licensed for 25 or more children. (Many indigenous-focused services were initially excluded from NQF, however, as we discuss below.) Half the staff employed in preschools and long day-care services will be required to have, or be working towards, a two-year vocational diploma in children's services; the remaining staff will be required to have, or be working towards, a vocational Certificate III Level ECEC qualification (a six-month entry-level qualification) or equivalent. Achieving these targets and attracting and retaining qualified professional staff will be critical challenges for the sector, especially given that it is characterised by low pay, poor promotion prospects and arduous working conditions. A high proportion of the staff in long day-care are currently paid at minimum award rates, have limited opportunities for career progression and do not benefit financially from upgrading their qualifications (Tarrant, 2008).

The National Quality Standard (NQS) encompasses structural, process, management and leadership factors that contribute to early learning and care and promote children's development (Sylva et al, 2004; Myers, 2006). It is closely linked to the national curriculum or EYLF; indeed, this framework must underpin a programme for each child that enhances learning and development. The quality areas covered by the NQS are: educational programme and practice; children's health and safety; physical environment; staffing arrangements (including staff-to-child ratios and staff qualifications); relationships with children; collaborative partnerships with families and communities; and leadership and service management (ACECQA, 2011). Each area has two or three outcome standards that services must demonstrate during the assessment and rating process. Services are rated on each quality area and given an overall quality rating. Assessors' ratings are based on the compliance and rating history of each centre, examination of its annual quality improvement plan, discussions with staff, sighting of supporting evidence such as centre policies and programme planning and evaluation, and observations of centre practices. The available ratings are:

  • Significant improvement required

  • Working towards National Quality Standard

  • Meeting the National Quality Standard

  • (p.185) Exceeding the National Quality Standard (services that receive this rating will be able to apply to be rated as ‘Excellent’).

The NQS is premised on the principle of ‘earned autonomy’: the higher the quality rating, the less frequent will be further formal and informal assessment visits (‘spot checks’) by the regulatory authority. Services rated as ‘working towards the national quality standard’, for example, will be subject to at least one formal assessment per year, and liable for spot checks. In contrast, services rated as ‘exceeding the national quality standard’ will be formally assessed every three years, as well as being subject to spot checks. It is notable, however, that while equity and inclusion are underlying principles of the NQS, evidence of providing equitable access for children from disadvantaged communities is not a requirement of gaining a rating that exceeds minimum standards. Since only a small number of centres will be rated as ‘exceeding the national quality standard’, it will be critical to monitor the locations of these centres, their fees and the proportion of their users who are from disadvantaged communities.

In most States and Territories the new quality standards represent a significant upgrading of the skills and qualifications required in ECEC settings and will potentially establish the groundwork for greater recognition and remuneration (Fenech et al, 2012). However, although the federal government has provided additional funding to help educators upgrade their qualifications, it has not provided services with the additional funding needed to raise salaries in line with these enhanced qualifications. Thus, the sector faces staff losses and possible shortages of qualified staff in future years. Commenting on the federal government's workforce initiatives, a major trade union in the sector observed that ‘these measures fall short of addressing the lack of career structures and wage incentives needed to encourage workers to remain in the sector and to undertake further study or training’ (United Voice, 2012, p 8).

A large number of indigenous-focused services have been excluded from the NQF, at least initially, due to their poor level of infrastructure and resources. Many of these are in remote or very remote areas of Australia and additional time and resources will be required to enable them to meet the NQF. The Australian government has allocated almost AUD$60 million for this task, and it is expected that these services will come under the NQF by 2014 (Productivity Commission, 2011, p 363). A major challenge for these services will be attracting and retaining staff (particularly indigenous staff).

(p.186) The NQF, and indeed the whole quality reform agenda, is characterised by its emphasis on lifting the quality of individual services rather than the quality of the system as a whole (Myers, 2006). This ‘quality-through-regulation’ approach means, in practice, that the onus is on services to find ways to meet the new standards and improve the quality of the education and care they provide. Inevitably, the capacity of services to do this will depend upon their resources, including the fees they are able to charge. Thus, unless governments contribute substantially to the costs of improved quality, access for disadvantaged children to the best programmes may be compromised. An approach that focused on the quality of the system as a whole would ensure that adequate funds were provided to support quality standards and pay appropriate wages to ECEC educators.

A further possible limitation on participation in high-quality ECEC by disadvantaged children is the existence of regulatory inconsistencies. Despite the intention that the NQF deliver national quality standards, it has not proved possible to reach agreement across the eight States and Territories on structural standards. Thus, jurisdictions that had already achieved more stringent staff-to-child ratios than those coming in under the NQS will retain the higher standard. As Table 8.6 illustrates, the protection (or ‘grandfathering’) of state-based staff-to-child ratios that are tougher than the new national standards means that some states and territories will have more robust provisions than others (Fenech et al, 2012).

Another inconsistency is that regulations concerning the employment of university-qualified teachers vary according to the size of the service. The requirement that services employ at least one early childhood teacher only applies to centres licensed to enrol 25 or more children. Centres licensed for fewer than 25 children are only required to have access to an early childhood teacher for 20% of their operating hours. Additionally, teacher requirements will vary across States and Territories due to protected standards that reflect past regulations. In New South Wales, for example, due to these ‘grandfathering’ provisions, centres licensed for 40–59 children require two teachers, centres licensed for 60–79 children require three teachers, and centres licensed for 80 or more children require four teachers. Given the difference university-qualified teachers can make to the quality of early learning programmes (Siraj-Blatchford and Manni, 2007), it is highly problematic that children's access to a quality centre will remain tied, at least for a period, to where they live and the licensed capacity of the service they attend.

(p.187) As noted earlier, by 2014, at least 50% of staff in ECEC centres will be required to have or be actively working towards a diploma or higher-level qualification. The remaining staff will be required to hold or be actively working towards a certificate in childcare. While these requirements represent substantial improvement in some States, evidence suggests that the employment of a core of university-qualified staff would be more likely to facilitate higher quality than a general requirement for all staff to have minimum qualifications (Siraj-Blatchford and Manni, 2007; Fenech et al, 2010). Given the teacher requirements noted above, access to quality ECEC services by children from disadvantaged families may, in practice, be more effectively supported by individual centre practices than by government policies.

The rules governing access to CCB may also limit the access of low-income and disadvantaged children to quality ECEC services. As noted above, families can access CCB only for services ‘approved’ by the Commonwealth government (this is not the same as meeting quality standards). State-funded preschools, although they may meet quality standards, are almost never approved by the Commonwealth for CCB purposes due to their limited hours of operation. From the Commonwealth perspective, this is a way of limiting its liability for taking on State government financial responsibilities. However, in States such as New South Wales where preschool is expensive, the lack of access to CCB causes substantial hardship and undermines the goal of universal access. In other jurisdictions, it should be noted, parents whose children attend long day-care face substantial gap fees and out-of-pocket expenses, while those using preschool may not be required to pay any fees at all (Productivity Commission, 2011, p xxxvii).

Management structures, budgeting and governance are relatively unexplored but potentially critical factors in determining the access of disadvantaged children to quality ECEC. A recent Australian study of the factors contributing to six long day-care centres receiving sustained high-quality ratings on three measures found that, on average, almost 85% of their budgets was allocated to staffing, including the employment of a core group of teachers. All six centres were non-profit. Given that at least two-thirds of long day-care centres in Australia are run on a private, for-profit basis (DEEWR, 2010), the correlation between profit status and quality requires further investigation.

Integrated services

In line with the National Early Childhood Reform Agenda, Australian governments have committed to promoting access to ECEC for (p.188) disadvantaged families through a strategy of integrated service provision. Integrated services comprise a mix of education, health and welfare services, the make-up and model of provision varying depending on the governing body and the needs of the specific target community.

For indigenous children, whose health and education outcomes are significantly lower than those of non-indigenous children, COAG's National Partnership for Indigenous Early Childhood Development (also referred to as the ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative) includes the establishment of 38 integrated or child and family centres targeting – but not restricted to – indigenous families in 23 rural and remote and 15 urban areas by mid-2014. This will require an investment of AUD$292.6 million federal funding over six years. As well as this, 38 integrated early learning and care services have been established for special populations. Six of these are for children with autism spectrum disorder and 32 are for families in areas of high disadvantage (Productivity Commission, 2011). Systematic evaluations of the quality of these integrated services, and assessments of the utilisation rates of disadvantaged families, will be undertaken.

Conclusions

Australian governments have taken many positive steps to improve the quality of early education and care, improve affordability and increase access as part of an overarching early childhood development strategy linked to human capital development, labour force participation and social inclusion. The reforms, together with substantially increased investment, should bear fruit in coming decades. Almost 40% of children aged nought to four now participate in formal, regulated ECEC, and solid progress has been made towards the goal of ensuring that all children have access to at least a year's preschool education. The EYLF and nationally consistent regulatory standards now apply to most preschool and childcare services.

Despite these advances, the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of Australia's reform agenda is not yet assured. A particular concern is that governments have not committed the additional funds that will required to meet higher staffing standards without putting undue pressure on fees. Even with the relatively flat-wage structures that prevail in ECEC, the employment of a more highly skilled and credentialed workforce will involve substantial extra costs. It is widely agreed that most ECEC staff are significantly underpaid already. If governments do not meet the additional costs of a more qualified (p.189) workforce, services will have to raise fees or cut other costs. This could potentially result in children from low-income families – that is, those who have most to gain from high-quality ECEC – being priced out of the system. Some private, for-profit providers have already claimed that the quality agenda is excessively burdensome for them and too expensive for parents (Karvelas, 2012b). They have sought to ally themselves with the Liberal Party, which has expressed concern about ‘over-regulation’ and interference in the market.

Another issue for the Australian ECEC system is that, beneath the integrated superstructure of curriculum, quality ratings and standards, significant differences and tensions remain – between the Commonwealth and the States, between education and care, and between the workforce and child-oriented goals of the ECEC system. These are apparent in the contrast between the supply-side funding model that operates in respect of preschools and the demand-side market model that characterises the Commonwealth's approach to childcare. Differences in wages and working conditions remain obstinately divided between education and care settings.

The goal of ensuring that every child has access to 15 hours' preschool is a major step forward for Australia, but as noted above, ‘universal access’ is a political aspiration, not an entitlement. In any case, 15 hours per week preschool for four-year-olds is an extremely modest goal in comparison with the entitlements and service guarantees of some other countries. Most indigenous-specific services are outside the new quality agenda until at least 2014, and it is unclear whether, by then, they will have been able to reach appropriate levels of quality, at least as measured by mainstream ratings and tools. Australia has no access targets for age groups other than children in the year before school, and no clear vision of how parents are expected to manage the transition from maternity or parental leave back to work.

Taken together, these gaps and omissions in Australian ECEC suggest that there is fundamental uncertainty at the political and policy level about the balance between government investment and private or family responsibility. They also suggest a lack of clarity about the emphasis that should be given to the (sometimes competing) goals of the system, including promoting children's development and learning, supporting adult workforce participation and enhancing gender equality.

(p.190)

References

Bibliography references:

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2008) Social Trends, Cat No 4102.0, Canberra: ABS.

ABS (2009) Social Trends, Cat No 4102.0, Canberra: ABS.

ABS (2011) Childhood Education and Care, Cat No 4402.0.55.003, Canberra: ABS.

ABS (2012a) Childhood Education and Care, Australia, June 2011, Cat No 4402.2, Camberra: ABS.

ABS (2012b) Experimental Estimates of Preschool Education, Australia, 2011, Cat No 4240.0, Canberra: ABS.

ACECQA (Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority) (2012) ACECQA Strategic Plan 2012–2016, Sydney: ACECQA.

AIHW (2012) A Picture of Australia's Children, Cat. no. PHE 167, Canberra: AIHW.

Brennan, D. (1998) The Politics of Australian Child Care: Philanthropy to Feminism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(p.191) Brennan, D. (2007a) ‘Babies, budgets and birthrates:Work/family policy in Australia 1996–2006’, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, vol 14, no 1, pp 31–57.

Brennan, D. (2007b) ‘The ABC of child care politics’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, vol 42, no 2, pp 213–25.

Brennan, D. (2010) ‘Federalism, feminism and multilevel governance’, in M. Haussman, M. Sawer and J. Vickers (eds) Federalism, Feminism and Multilevel Governance, Farhmah: Ashgate, pp 37–50.

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) (2009a) Investing in the Early Years:A National Childhood Development Strategy, July (http://acecqa.gov. au/storage/national_ECD_strategy.pdf).

COAG (2009b) National Partnership Agreement on the National Quality Agenda for Early Childhood Education and Care (www.eduweb.vic.gov.au/edulibrary/ public/earlychildhood/nqf/nationalpartnershipagreementnqa.pdf).

COAG (2009c) Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (www.deewr.gov.au/EarlyChildhood/Policy_Agenda/Quality/Documents/Final%20EYLF%20Framework%20 Report%20-%20WEB.pdf).

COAG (2009d) National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education, Canberra: COAG (www.federalfinancialrelations.gov.au/content/npa/education/early_childhood/national_partnership.pdf).

COAG (2009e) National Indigenous Reform Agreement (Closing the Gap), Canberra: COAG (www.federalfinancialrelations.gov.au/content/npa/ health_indigenous/indigenous-reform/national-agreement_sept_12.pdf).

DEEWR (Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations) (2010) State of Child Care in Australia, Canberra: Office of Early Childhood Education and Child Care.

DEEWR (2012a) Annual Report 2011–2012, Canberra: DEEWR.

DEEWR (2012b) Child Care Update, Canberra: DEEWR.

DHS (Department of Human Services) (2012) Budget 2012–13: Jobs, Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance Program, Canberra: DHS.

Ellis, K. (2009) ‘Ministerial Statement – The future of ABC learning’, 15 September.

Farouque, F. (2006) ‘The other Eddy everywhere’, The Age, 8 April.

Fenech, M., Giugni, M. and Bown, K. (2012) ‘A critical analysis of the National Quality Framework: Mobilising for a vision for children beyond minimum standards’, Australasian Journal of Early Childhood. vol 37, no 4, pp 5–14.

Fenech, M., Harrison, L., Press, F. and Sumsion, J. (2010) Contributors to Quality Long Day Care: Findings from Six Case Study Centres, Bathurst: Charles Sturt University.

(p.192) Karvelas, P. (2012a) ‘Widening gap “a reason” to raise child care cap’, The Australian, 23 May.

Karvelas, P. (2012b) ‘Costly baby rooms go out with the bathwater’, The Australian, 18 December.

Myers, R. G. (2006) Quality in Program of Early Childhood Care and Education (http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001474/147473e.pdf).

Newberry, S. and Brennan, D. (2013) ‘Economic and social policy tensions: Early childhood education and care in a marketised environment’, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability, vol 29, no 3, pp 227–45.

Productivity Commission (2011) Early Childhood Development Workforce, Research Report (www.pc.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/113907/ early-childhood-report.pdf).

Productivity Commission (2012) Report on Government Services, Canberra: Productivity Commission.

PWC (PriceWaterhouseCoopers) (2012) A Practical Vision for Early Childhood Education and Care, Melbourne: PWC.

Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Manni, L. (2007) Effective Leadership in the Early Years Sector (ELEYS) Study, London: Institute of Education, University of London.

SNAICC (2012) Opening Doors Through partnerships: Practical approaches to developing genuine partnerships that address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community needs, Melbourne: SNAICC.

Spearritt, P. (1974) ‘The kindergarten movement: tradition and change’, in D. Edgar (ed) Social Change in Australia: Readings in Sociology, Melbourne: Cheshire, pp 583–96.

Sumsion, J. (2012) ‘ABC Learning and Australian early childhood education and care: a retrospective audit of a radical experiment’, in E. Lloyd and H. Penn (eds) Childcare Markets: Can They Deliver an Equitable Service?, Bristol: Policy Press.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E. C., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) Project: Technical Paper 12 – The Final Report: Effective Pre-school education, London: Department for Education and Skills, Institute of Education, University of London.

Tarrant, L. (2008) ‘Taking big steps in child care’, Every Child, vol 14, no 3, p 3.

United Voice (2012) ‘Professional wages proposal for early childhood education and care’, United Voice 2013 ECC Federal Budget Submission.

Notes:

(1) ‘Long day-care’ is the term used in Australia for a childcare centre or crèche.

(2) As discussed later, many indigenous-specific services have been excluded from the new quality agenda, at least initially.

(3) Both terms are used in Australia.We use them interchangeably here.

(4) Australia is a federation with six States and two Territories as well as a national government. From time to time in this chapter we use the term ‘States’ to cover both types of sub-national jurisdiction.

(5) In Victoria, local government also plays a significant role.

(6) Family day-care involves caregivers providing care and development activities in the caregiver's own home. Schemes are administered and supported by central coordination units.

(7) The In-Home Care programme provides for a carer to be employed in the child's home. Support for in-home care is limited and it is available only to certain types of families, such as those living in remote parts of Australia, families where there are three or more children below school age, and families where either the child or parent has a disability.

(8) A national paid parental scheme was introduced in Australia in 2011. It provides 18 weeks' leave paid at the minimum wage and an additional two weeks if partners take leave. Most Australian parents are entitled to one year of unpaid parental leave.

(9) The most important exceptions are the 269 ‘budget-based’ services that cater mainly to ATSI children and their families.