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Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Page: 3958

Senator LUNDY (6:57 PM) —Last Thursday, 21 August, I was proud to assist in the ACT launch of the Big Steps in Childcare campaign. For many years now we have worked to support parents, children and childcare workers so that access to quality child care can be the right of every child. Senators will remember many of our campaigns and demonstrations in front of Parliament House over the last decade. Now, at last, the Australian federal government has made childcare reform a priority, and has committed to a national workforce strategy.

After 11 years of neglect and systematic downgrading of this sector by the Howard government, we now have a Labor government that recognises how important to Australia’s future quality early childhood education and care are. One of the Rudd government’s early steps in its recognition of the importance of creating the best early childhood education and care system for children, families and the Australian economy was to appoint a Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood and Childcare, Ms Maxine McKew.

The government will consult with childcare experts and with state ministers with the aim of standardising the level of care and lifting the qualifications of carers. We need partnerships between all groups—managers, workers, the federal government, state and territory governments and local governments—to achieve our goals.

Recognising the problems that face the childcare sector, the parliamentary secretary has said that at present we have a very fragmented system that cannot guarantee quality. It is time that we had a national set of standards linking licensing with accreditation. At present we have different licensing systems in every state and territory. This means there is no Australia-wide standard ratio of workers to children, and it means different requirements in regard to qualifications. For babies up to the age of two years, for example, a staff-infant ratio of one to three is desirable, but the norm in most states is one to five. As was highlighted on The 7.30 Report on 6 August, an often unqualified young person who is responsible for the care of five babies cannot provide quality care for them all, yet this is legal in most states.

A big problem is that almost 40 per cent of the early childhood workforce in long day care centres has no formal childcare qualifications. I am not criticising these individuals as I know they do the best they can do, yet research clearly shows that staff qualifications and expertise are important and do make a difference. Without an adequate well-trained and well-paid staff it is impossible to give children the best quality care and education. Surveys tell us that what parents and children value most in a childcare centre is the quality or caring nature of the staff.

We know that there is a skills crisis in child care caused by low pay and poor career paths for workers. Teachers in child care earn, generally, 25 per cent less than primary school teachers. As a result we have poor retention rates in the early childhood sector of the workforce. I am sorry to say that here in the Australian Capital Territory we have one of the highest job turnover rates at 47 per cent and a high percentage of vacant positions, but all of the states and territories have unacceptably high rates. There is an acute shortage of trained childcare workers. Thousands of experienced childcare professionals leave the sector every year. They leave because of the heavy workload, poor wages, lack of recognition and high stress levels, yet bonding with the carer and continuity of staff are critically important for a child’s wellbeing. What we do know is that by 2013 a shortage of some 7,320 childcare professionals nationally is predicted. This is a dire situation.

The Rudd government has recognised the importance of early childhood education and care and the need to provide the best experience we can for our children. Our emphasis will now be on quality and ongoing professional development for childcare workers. In committing to reform of Australia’s early childhood sector the government has already announced funding of $10 million in 2007 and 2008 for projects to improve access to early childhood education programs; an allocation of $533 million to provide 15 hours of government funded, teacher led early education in the year before school by 2013; a national early years workforce strategy, which will include additional early childhood education university places each year from 2009, increasing to 1,500 places by 2011; removal of TAFE fees for diplomas and advanced diplomas of children’s services and the creation of 8,000 new vocational education and training places; and a 50 per cent HECS-HELP remission for early childhood education teachers willing to work in rural and regional areas, Indigenous communities and areas of socioeconomic disadvantage. Further, there will be national collaboration in the development of a national Early Years Learning Framework which emphasises play based learning, early literacy and numeracy skills and social development. This framework will be linked to new national quality standards for child care and preschool.

And now the LHMU, the childcare union, has given us a blueprint for the steps needed to provide what is every Australian child’s fundamental right—the right to quality care and education. The LHMU Big Steps campaign is being undertaken in partnership with Early Childhood Australia, the National Association of Community Based Children’s Services, the Children’s Services Taskforce, the Community Services and Health Industry Skills Council and Sydney University’s Workplace Research Centre. Big Steps is about thinking in new ways to create the best early childhood education and care system for children, families and the Australian economy. This national campaign was launched in Sydney last month and builds on the exemplary initiatives taken by the Rudd Labor government to date.

A major aim of the Big Steps in Childcare campaign is to provide opportunities for existing staff to upskill to a certificate III, diploma or degree and to formally recognise workers’ skills and prior learning. Workers already in the system should be able to access the new training funding and improved status. In fact the first big step is workforce reform. The national workforce strategy developed by the LHMU will include recognition of prior learning and upskilling existing diploma holders in the workforce. This strategy is consistent with the government’s Skilling Australia initiative. We know that these reforms will come at a price but we realise that the benefits to Australia in years to come will more than recoup our outlays.

As Professor Frank Oberklaid, Director of the Centre for Community Child Health at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne has explained: ‘There’s no doubt it costs money, but we either pay now or pay later.’ Many problems of adults and older children, which cost the country huge amounts for remedial, rehabilitative or punitive programs, can be traced back to disadvantaged early learning environments where the nurturing, care and learning opportunities for which we now aim were not available. According to the professor, research demonstrates that what we spend on the first five years of life makes an even larger difference than does the school system. This is quite an extraordinary finding.

I am proud of this government’s commitment and its investment in Australia’s children. Together with our expenditure on preschools, this government is making an unprecedented investment in families and our youngest children—$3.2 billion in this year alone. I commend the government’s commitment to workers and families through the provision of programs for the ongoing professional development of childcare staff and through its commitment to improve staff-child ratios and programs for children. I also look forward to continuing to work for this important campaign, Big Steps in Childcare, in partnership with the childcare union and I urge all senators to support it.