EDITORIAL: From today, Australia’s early education sector takes a backwards step

Today, the Coalition Government’s new Child Care Package legislation comes into effect, 462 days after it was passed by the Australian Parliament. Nothing that has happened in those 462 days gives us any confidence that this Package will be better for children than we thought on Day 1. In fact, it’s clear now that it will be worse than we thought.

462 days ago, the reforms were known by the more accurate title of the Jobs for Families Package. That title told us everything we needed to know about the changes the Government wanted to make, and the values that sat behind them.

Prior to the reforms passing Parliament in March 2017, Northside wrote a number of submissions to Senate inquiries that highlighted our concerns. These concerns were, broadly:

  • The Work Activity Test restricting children’s access to ECEC
  • The ending of the Budget Based Funding program, and the inevitable closure of Aboriginal Early Childhood Centres
  • The introduction of greater complexity and administrative burden to the sector
  • The likely outcome of greater casualisation and job insecurity of the early childhood educator workforce

Those concerns hold true today. The Government has admitted that 25% of families will be worse off under these reforms. Only 151 out of around 330 Budget Based Funded services have received grant funding under the new system. Early education service organisations have reported to the Government a significant increase in administrative burden. Service organisations have begun to implement shorter sessions of “care”, which is the start of a move to less full-time educators.

No other country in the world makes access to early childhood education as complex, frustrating and punitive as Australia.

The Government has often described these reforms as ensuring that “the right families” receive subsidies. Children are the ultimate beneficiary of subsidised access to early education, so what the Government is actually saying is that they want “the right children” attending early education.

At Northside, we don’t believe in looking at children and families and deciding which of them deserves access, and which don’t. We don’t believe anyone should think that way about children and learning.

Imagine the outcry if the Government made families log their combined income before their child could turn up at primary school. What if they made families state how many hours they worked a fortnight before a high school opened its doors to their children? Research is clear that the first five years are the most important in the life of a human being, and yet we pour billions of dollars and endless pages of legislation into locking doors in that time – not opening them.

Countries around the world are accepting the irrefutable evidence on universal access to early childhood education. They are reforming their systems to ensure that more children have more access, particularly the most disadvantaged. It takes a particularly blinkered mindset to reform a system by locking children out, and making families and services work harder to help the families deemed worthy of an enrolment.

It is no longer accurate or helpful to call what the Australian Government has enacted with the Child Care Package “reforms”. Let’s call them what they are – a backwards step for children and our community.

And let’s continue the call for a system that opens doors for children, not close them.

Anna Whitty is the Executive Director for Children’s Services at Northside Community Service.

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