Address to the Australian Community Child Care Services National Council

Friday, 08 November 2019

ADELAIDE
 *** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***

Thank you for the welcome. It is good to be back amongst friends at the ACCS.

There are a number of important issues currently in the mix at a national level, and it is vital the ACCS and the services you represent are a part of the conversation.

There’s the review of the National Quality Framework.

The review of the Preschools National Partnership Agreement.

The review into preschool and kindy funding and attendance rates.

The belated and inadequate amendments to the government’s flawed child care system.

And of course the ongoing dramas with the new child care system, which has placed a large administrative burden on providers and families.

Like the ACCS, I will be guided in all of these discussions by a commitment to ensuring all Australian children are able to access, affordable and high quality early learning. Because I want to ensure that every child gets the best start to life and we know that opportunity to engage in early learning is a critical part to this.

We need the government to understand that early childhood education is so much more than just enabling workforce participation it is about preparing a child for life.

As the peak body for the community and not for profit providers, you are the voice for a very important element of our system – many families treasure community run services. Your services ensure that children are at the centre of the education and care you provide and that families have a real and meaningful say in the service their children attend. In my view it is important the non for profit and community sector flourishes to ensure that there is true choice for parents in the education their child can access.

You are the front line of our early education and care system. Our children and their families and carers rely on you for care and early learning.

And it’s no exaggeration to say the government relies on your goodwill to stop the whole system falling apart.

As everyone in this room knows, preschool funding from the Commonwealth Government runs out at the end of the next school year.

We are all sick and tired of fighting for a long term funding commitment to preschools from the Morrison Government.

This is a government that likes to pretend it makes long term decisions, but when it comes to putting that into practice, we know that they simply don’t do it.

They have now signed six preschool agreements with the states – one for every year they’ve been in government. They just keep rolling over the agreement for 12 months at a time.

Now, the Minister says that it is just not possible to fund preschools for longer because he claims there are problems with data and attendance rates.

That’s his line whenever we debate this issue in parliament, and in his media comments.

I don’t want to pretend that attendance rates aren’t important – of course they are. But is this a valid reason for holding the entire sector to ransom? And why has it taken them six years to do something about it, if it concerns them so greatly?

In 2008, only 77 per cent of 4 year olds were in a preschool program, and only 12 per cent were enrolled for the recommended 600 hours.

Now, after a decade of investment, over 93 per cent are enrolled in a preschool program, with 77 per cent attending for the recommended 15 hours a week.

We know the 4 year old program is working. Since the program started, NAPLAN year 3 mean reading scores have gone up by 12.7 per cent.

We also know, from the latest research and evidence, that attending quality preschool programs leads directly to higher reading, maths and science test results throughout a child’s schooling.

The government has commissioned the Smith Family to do a study into strategies to improve attendance rates, which is welcome, as long as its findings are shared with the whole sector.

Likewise, the review into the national partnership agreement is an important element in building the evidence base and performance management of the program.

But it is hard to take anything the government does seriously when at the last Education Ministers Council meeting preschools are not even listed on the agenda for discussion.

I know how critical funding certainty is for the sector, and for families. I will keep fighting for it. But everyone here today has to keep fighting too – and get your members, and families, fighting for it.

Because make no mistake – if this government thinks it can get away with cutting this funding, they will do it.

This federal government has often made comments that preschool funding should be the responsibility of the states and territories.

Therefore we must keep the pressure on if we are going to see a long term commitment from the commonwealth.

The same goes for protecting the National Quality Framework.

I question the Government’s commitment to the NQF when they cut $20 million for the NQF in the 2018 Budget – one of their smaller cuts, but arguably one of their most shameful.

They also tore up the National Partnership Agreement on the NQF and more or less walked away from the national quality agenda.

The NQF is one of the success stories of our early education and care system, and I know how much you all value it.

Unfortunately the Government doesn’t value it.

Last month at Senate Estimates we heard the Department state clearly it was an issue for the states and territories.

When approximately one quarter of all ECEC services aren’t meeting the NQF, I would argue it is a national concern.

And when I see stories dropped to the papers blaming excessive regulation and staff ratios for high child care fees, I start to get concerned that a campaign is underway to weaken the NQF.

I sincerely hope the review into the NQF will state clearly the benefits and advantages of the NQF and make recommendations to improve its operation where appropriate, without weakening its strong educational and safety components.

As shadow minister I will be arguing that quality cannot be compromised when it comes to the education and care of our children.

After denying there were any issues with the new child care system, it was surprising to see the government introduced a new Bill into parliament last month.

I won’t go into detail about my thoughts on the specific aspects of the Bill – I’ll save that for the debate in the House in a few weeks.

The only comment I will make is that the Bill proposes new restrictions on families trying to register for the child care subsidy, by requiring every family to have their bank account and tax file number before they can be registered in the system with Centrelink.

As the sector expressed in their submissions to the legislation review, this will have an impact on families in stress fleeing disasters or domestic violence.

Labor does not find this provision of the Bill acceptable and so will be moving an amendment to remove it from the Bill.

But this Bill doesn’t do much to fix the structural problems that have seen a significant drop in the number of at-risk children receiving the additional child care subsidy, and burdening providers with paperwork and unpaid debts.

The numbers prove the government’s new rules are failing vulnerable children and families.

In the first six months of the new system the number of children receiving the child wellbeing subsidy collapsed by 21 per cent and many families are no longer using the safety net provisions.

This is a system which leaves one in four families worse off – it’s a design feature that access to early education and care is reduced for 279,000 families.

It is a system that only 40 per cent of providers and only 41 per cent of families told the independent evaluation reviewers had resulted in positive change.

And 83 per cent of parents told the evaluation that the new system had made no impact on their work and study.

It’s a system that has been forcing child care providers to act as unpaid debt collectors for the government because families are struggling to stay on top of the complicated activity and means tests.

It is a system that has been riddled with software glitches that have left providers and families in the dark and staff without pay.

It is a system that has so far slugged 16 per cent of families with a child care debt

It is a system that has done little to bring child care fees under control, which have now shot up 30 per cent under this government, including 7 per cent in the last 12 months according to the latest ABS inflation data.

The government was very confident last year that their new system would “put downward pressure on fees” and they were “driving down the cost of child care”.

You don’t hear the Minister make these claims anymore.

When it comes to feedback on the new system I am keen to continue to work with you to shine a light on how we can make the system work better for families and centres

Thank you for having me hear today There are a lot of very important reviews are underway, and next year some significant decisions will be made.

It is critical that ACCS stays energised, stays engaged, and stays focused.

It is no exaggeration to state that the future of our preschool universal access program is at stake, the future of a strong national quality framework is at stake, and that vulnerable families still need your help.

This government needs to know that the sector will not give up the progress of the last decade.

I’ll keep fighting for children and families. Labor will always support boosting and supporting early learning for our children as we understand that it literally lays down the building blocks for life.

I look forward to working with you in the year ahead.

Thank you for having me here today. I am happy to take any questions.

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