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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 3497

Ms O’NEILL (7:14 PM) —I rise to support the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010, which amends the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999. I am very pleased to speak on this bill. I think it has the potential to provide good care in our community for our young children, who are engaging more and more in early childhood education.

The outline of the bill lets us know that it is to return the child care rebate annual cap to $7,500 per child per year and to pause indexation of the annual cap for four years until 30 June 2014. Obviously, that saving is being directed in a very powerful way, a very symbolic way, in this legislative change. It is going to generate $86.3 million, which will be directly reinvested in lifting the quality of child care, through the national quality framework. That is going to deliver better staff-child ratios and improve staff qualifications. This is where I would like to spend most of the time that I am going to be speaking this evening: the implications of the lift in quality that is possible.

The other outcome of the bill, which is something that is very important to achieve, is the funding of quality improvements in 142 budget based funded early childhood services that are predominantly in rural and remote Australia. These are critical services that provide education to some of Australia’s most vulnerable children.

With regard to early childhood education, in my very first speech I referred to my anticipation of getting into primary school and commencing my own junior studies. It does not feel that long ago, but how much has changed in that period of time from when the first experience of schooling, education and access to educational professionals happened when one turned five. We have learnt so much in the last 30 years about the power of early childhood education and we know from this that we are impelled to act to improve the quality of the experience that young children have when they attend early childhood settings.

My experience in the seat of Robertson gives me a sense of confidence about what it is that we are embarking on here. When I fell pregnant with my children the possibility of engaging somebody to help look after them was very important to me. Like many people who have moved into the seat of Robertson, we have dislocated up the coast and away from our families and our base, often in the Sydney suburban areas. Without family support the preschool, as a hub for new young mothers and fathers and as a hub for connection with other kids of the same age, becomes even more important. If we extrapolate that out into the rural and remote sector, that story is written even more largely.

Commuters on the Central Coast rely on childcare services to provide the highest quality of care. We have 30,000 commuters heading to Sydney each day. Many of them are parents with young children and they need to know that at a distance of more than an hour away they are in high-quality settings. I am pleased to report to the House that during the recent campaign the minister and I attended a rather exciting afternoon at a preschool setting at Green Point. It is a perfect example of what happens when there is a high-quality agenda at the heart of what an early childhood centre is seeking to achieve. In that school we saw a great deal of care in programming and planning for each individual child. We saw excellence in terms of mentoring by older, experienced and well qualified staff building up expectations and capacities for younger staff to engage in the sorts of study that are going to increase the quality of experience and deepen their understanding of the complex elements of a growing child. We know that if we do well in early childhood, if we start off well with our young kids in this country, we give them a great start for a life in which health and wellbeing will be benefited by that good start. Schools are in fact hubs of the community and, as early childhood centres, they are the primary places in which many families connect with one another. They learn from staff who need to be highly qualified.

Another key feature of the bill is the impact of the cap. This is an important issue to address, and I think it is very important to be upfront and say that this change is going to affect fewer than one per cent of families using child care who are earning less than $100,000 a year. The transfer of funding to a quality agenda is a critical and important development that this bill will provide for. In fact, by 2013-14 it is estimated that the average childcare rebate claim will be $2,300, which is well under the $7,500 cap. This national quality framework is going to deliver higher quality to almost 800,000 Australian families, and that is an important impact.

One of the key questions that are being debated here this evening is that of affordability. The Gillard government has been answering many questions in the parliament since its return in the most recent federal election about our commitment to affordability in a whole range of areas. This is an important measure. We are on the record for increasing the rebate to parents from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. I happen to have had my children at a time when there was no rebate and I definitely understand that going from zero to 30 per cent had a powerful impact on my family’s capacity to budget and on cost savings. It took pressure off my family and increased our capacity to parent.

The commitment we are talking about here tonight is backed by an investment of more than $18.2 billion over the next four years. If we compare that with what we saw from the former coalition government, it is almost $11 billion more than was provided in the last four years of the former coalition government. So any debate here that tries to create the impression that the Gillard government is not investing in early childhood care is simply a misrepresentation of the facts. Overall we are investing $14.9 billion to help 800,000 Australian families. This is an important part of our commitment to looking after the communities in which we are working.

One of the things we know about early childhood is that it is important that we develop an ethic of care at these critical sites. We need sites where parents can have peace of mind that, when they drop off their child, they not only are going to be safe and happy but also are going to be in an educationally stimulating environment. My experience of lecturing students in English and sociology at the University of Newcastle put me in a situation where I had secondary, primary, and early childhood teachers working in the same room. Early childhood teachers who do quality training deeply understand that the learner needs to be at the centre of all of their planning processes. Learner centred programming is a critical skill that we need all our early childhood educators to be able to deliver. That kind of outstanding capacity to program and plan for individual children is not achieved by easy measure. This is not child minding; it is child caring at the highest level. It is about education and setting kids up for success in the future and success in their future educational experiences. Great quality early childhood sets up dispositions for learning in young people that can be with them for the entire learning experience, right through to adulthood. It is so important that we attend to it well.

One concern that has been raised is the need for transparent measurement and accounting of what is going on in different childcare centres. As I said, in the seat of Robertson we often have families that have moved from one area to another. They do not have the benefit of the community experience and the grapevine that might tell them where a great childcare centre is or about another one that has perhaps not met those standards. It is important, through accreditation, to make available descriptions of what is going on in these early childhood centres to all Australian families who are seeking the best education for their children.

The report from the National Childcare Accreditation Council lets us know that, sadly, there are some failures out there. Those on the other side would have you believe that everything out there is going very well, but the reality is that quality is something we have to strive towards at all points in time, and we need to critique what we are doing currently. We now have records showing that 30 per cent of centres, when audited, failed to ensure that toileting and nappy changing procedures were consistent with advice from recognised health authorities. This is an alarming statistic. There are great early childhood centres out there. There are great educators and great carers who are operating at the very highest level. But we have to acknowledge that there is a need to address that 30 per cent—which is not an insubstantial figure—of centres that have displayed noncompliance with what health authorities are recommending as best practice.

We also have records that show that 26 per cent of centres failed to ensure that each child’s learning was documented and used in a planning program. I alluded to that a little earlier. We need to document what kids do, because sometimes our casual perceptions about what they are doing are not a very accurate measure of where they have been and where they might be heading. Also, when we have somebody else’s child in our care in an early childhood setting, an important part of the journey is sharing the records of what has been done while the parents have been away so the parents and the carers can jointly care at the highest quality level to make sure that the story of the young person’s learning is documented and can be gradually built on. It will be impacted by the professional learning of the teacher and conversations with parents, making sure that the best quality education is being offered from the earliest point in time.

Sadly, we know that 34 per cent of centres failed to ensure that staff members supported each child’s need for rest, sleep, comfort and sun protection. As a parent, you sometimes wonder: ‘Have I always attended to all of those elements myself?’ But as a parent there is the imperative of care deeply bounded inside you. You just have to rise to that level, even when you are tired yourself. Parents set those standards through an exercise of love and care. We expect those standards to be met in our early childhood centres. To ensure that those standards are met, we need to make some changes. That is why we must invest in a quality agenda for our early childhood centres.

I was alarmed to find that 32 per cent of centres failed to ensure that potentially dangerous products and plants were moved away from where children were playing. One of the liabilities that you have as a teacher is that you do visual audits everywhere you go. I can recall going to a number of children’s parties with my own children and seeing the odd rake turned up the wrong way, with the pointy ends facing up to the sky, while the children were all running around. I would have to go and do a bit of an audit of the site and remove those dangerous items. That mindfulness is an important part of the care teachers provide for the people in their care, and it is certainly a critical part of what early childhood carers do in looking after the children who are entrusted to their care.

We believe that we can and must do better when it comes to the safety and wellbeing of our children in early learning. That is why we are working on partnerships with state and territory governments to implement this national quality framework. Clearly, making that framework explicit is the first step towards lifting the quality of care for all those young Australians who are being born now and who are about to enter into the early childhood setting. This will include improving staff-child ratios, raising staff qualifications, introducing a quality rating system and reducing red tape. These are the things we will achieve with our new agenda for early childhood.

To revisit the key points, this bill is going to generate $86.3 million, and this will be directly reinvested in the national quality framework. Each child will be getting more individual care and attention. Staff will be better qualified, and our dedicated childcare workers will be better able to lead activities that we know will help kids learn, will help them develop and will lead to happier, healthier children. In summary, the measures proposed in this bill are very reasonable and aspirational. The changes to the budget will not affect the vast majority of Australian families, but they will fund essential improvements in the quality of care through the national quality framework, and 800,000 Australian families will benefit. I commend the bill to the House.