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Speech to the National Early Childhood Stakeholder Roundtable, Canberra.



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The Hon Maxine McKew MP

Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Child Care

16 October, 2008

Speech

Speech to the National Early Childhood Stakeholder Roundtable

'Check Against Delivery', The Realm Hotel, 18 National Circuit, Barton

Introduction

Good morning and welcome to the National Early Childhood Stakeholder Roundtable. The Deputy Prime Minister, the Honourable Julia Gillard, has asked that I speak at this Council of Australian Governments event.

This roundtable is part of ongoing consultations and discussions with stakeholders with an interest in the national early childhood reform agenda. Many of you will have already been involved in the quality consultations in September and the Productivity Agenda Working Group ‘Open Day’ in July.

I know that you have a keen interest in the early childhood reform initiatives and I’d like to thank you for contributing your experience and expertise to our discussions today.

As you all know, the Rudd Government has placed an unprecedented focus on children and early childhood development. It’s encouraging that there’s support for this right across the Council of Australian Governments. COAG has made it clear that under the broad umbrella of the Productivity Agenda, early childhood is an area that will receive significant attention.

You’ll note that early childhood reform is being dealt with in the productivity stream of COAG’s ambitious agenda.

Despite these uncertain economic times, it remains that the soundest investment any government can make is to invest in our children, and the biggest difference we can make for todays and future generations, is to invest early.

For generations in this country we’ve invested too little, too late. I can assure you that the Rudd Government is committed to investing in our children’s early years, to ensure that each and every child has the support and the opportunities they need to realise their potential.

I’ve been extremely heartened by the enormous amount of goodwill and enthusiasm expressed by people in the many meetings and consultations sessions I’ve attended in past months …parents, operators and early childhood professionals are all motivated to provide the best possible opportunities for children.

Of course, we might not agree on everything, but this is a healthy and necessary part of the debate if we’re to devise innovative and effective child-focussed policy in this area.

This is a challenge for governments, obviously, but it is equally a challenge for every one of you involved in the delivery of early childhood services.

I think it’s true to say that everyone in this room is a champion for the cause of improving services and outcomes for children and I welcome your input into policy development and implementation here, and in the state-based roundtables that are to follow in November.

Today’s discussions will cover Commonwealth Government and COAG commitments to ensure universal access to quality, affordable early childhood education, and to establish up to 260 additional early learning and care centres.

There’s a lot to get through this morning, but I’ll take this opportunity to make a few brief comments about the long term early childhood policy goals being pursued under COAG, and some of the key issues that we’ll be considering today.

Government reform agenda

The Rudd Government came to office with the stated mission of ensuring a better future for all Australians.

That being the case, the early years are now the critical starting point for policy action.

We are implementing an ambitious reform agenda that I’m confident will improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of early childhood services across Australia.

To this end we have committed unprecedented funding—a total of $2.4 billion over five to early childhood education and care.

The Rudd Government has made a massive commitment to increasing the Child Care Tax Rebate rate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of out of pocket costs to a maximum of $7,500 per child per annum. The rebate will now also be paid quarterly and is not means tested. In

meeting this commitment, the Government is making approved child care more affordable for families with work, training and study commitments.

We are funding a range of other significant initiatives.

• To achieve universal access to early learning —we are providing $530 million over five years—increasing to $450 million per year by 2013—to ensure all children have

access to quality, affordable early childhood education for 15 hours per week for 40 weeks a year in the year before formal schooling. This will be delivered by university-qualified early childhood teachers in a diversity of settings. • To meet families need for quality early learning and childcare places — we are providing $114.5 million over four years to establish the first 38 of the 260 early learning and care centres. • To build the professional capacity within the early childhood education and care workforce — we are providing $126.6 million over four years to support the upskilling of workforce and to encourage teachers to work in long day care settings in rural and disadvantaged areas; and • To ‘raise the bar’ on quality in Australia’s early childhood education and care — we are providing $22 million over four years to fund the development of a rigorous set of national quality standards for child care, and introduce a quality rating system for services.

Investing in universal quality early childhood education in this way—whether you call it preschool, kindergarten or something else—is strongly supported by the evidence and is therefore good policy on so many levels.

First and foremost it is good for all children, but especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It will help to lift educational and social outcomes and reduce the gap between groups of children.

Child-focussed policy will also have flow on effects for the way services are delivered, putting children at the centre, providing increased support for parents and reducing the administrative burden for providers.

A new collaborative approach

Make no mistake, this is a reform agenda that asks a lot of all of us—governments, providers and the wider community. It will require not only resources and persistence, but a new way of working together.

Central to this is a collegial, collaborative relationship with the states and territories—in a new spirit of cooperative Federalism for the 21st century.

It will also require new collaborative and flexible ways of working across the sector— between government, community and private providers, academics, workers, unions and training providers.

Finally, and most importantly, it will require a new sense of coordinated effort and cooperation among service providers, whether they are government, community or privately run, and whether they have an educational or care perspective.

Consultations like this one today exemplify this new way of working—and I should say, actively ‘listening’ to a range of views.

As you know, there are some very complex and sensitive issues to be addressed and we are committed to ongoing engagement with stakeholders to ensure we ‘get it right’.

It’s important to emphasise too that quality universal preschool is just one part of a broader reform agenda which is about supporting children, and their families, from before birth right up to the first years of school.

As a first step in this direction, COAG has just this month signed off on $564 million of joint Commonwealth-State funding over 6 years to address the needs of Indigenous and disadvantaged children in their early years.

As part of this initiative, 35 Children and Family Centres are to be established across Australia to deliver integrated services that offer early learning, child care and family support programs to Indigenous children and their families. The funding will also increase access to antenatal care, teenage sexual health and maternal and child health services.

Ensuring access and quality

Quality preschool and child care are an essential part of this equation, especially when there are risk factors in other areas of a child’s life.

It is a real concern therefore, that in Australia today this equation just doesn’t add up:

• Australia is at the bottom of the ladder of developed countries in terms of investment in early childhood education. • We have a fragmented service system which varies in terms of quality, fees and availability depending on where you live or whether the service is community, private

or government-run. • Around 20% of all four year olds do not participate in preschool at all—more in some states - and more than half of all Indigenous four year olds miss out. • Only seven per cent of early childhood workers in long day care centres hold a

bachelor degree or higher qualification in early childhood, and 39 per cent of the workforce in long day care centres have no formal child care qualifications at all.

This is where we’re at….Now let’s look at where we’re headed - ensuring access to quality early childhood education.

In order to have access services must be:

• Available—and this is where the 260 Early Learning and Care Centres come in. We’ve announced sites for the first two of these centres and we’re in funding negotiations with various states for the others. As I mentioned earlier, the Government has allocated $114.5 million over four years to the construction of the first 38 priority centres, and I think it’s worth pointing out this is the first time since 1996 that the Commonwealth has made a significant capital commitment to building new child care centres. The Commonwealth will no longer be a passive player in this area. We need to look at planning both for new services and better use of existing services to meet increased demand associated with universal access, and at some flexible ways of delivering services in areas where there are low numbers of children. • Services must be affordable—the Government understands that quality has a cost and

that is why we are investing strongly to ensure quality does not have to come at the expense of affordability for parents. We need to develop practical solutions to ensure cost is not a barrier to access, particularly for the most vulnerable children in society.

As a first step, in this year’s budget the Government allocated $ 1.6 billion over 4 years to increase the Child Care Tax Rebate from 30% to 50%. We are also working with our state and territory government colleagues to find ways to ensure that children who are not participating in early learning programs because of the cost, can do so

with minimal impact on the family budget.

And there are additional objectives we would like to achieve with this measure.

• For example, services should support parents. Operating hours should be flexible and meet the needs of working parents. And early childhood education programs should be delivered across a range of settings, making full use of existing services wherever possible. Of course this will have major implications for ‘traditional’ stand-alone preschools and for long day care centres. It is also a challenge for other services, most notably Family Day Care.

• And services should be inclusive for all children. That means we need to identify the barriers to access and devise for solutions for overcoming them. For example, transport, cultural appropriateness, disabilities, family dysfunction and lack of awareness about the benefits of early childhood education will all prevent a child from participating in early learning programs. So we need to develop some innovative ways to attract hard to reach children and families. This could be providing a bus service to bring children to and from a centre. Or implementing a special needs program for children with disabilities.

I’m confident that by working together we’ll come up with creative and effective solutions to meet these challenges and guarantee all children an equal start.

In terms of quality we are working towards implementing a national quality framework that encompasses a set of national standards for greater consistency, a ratings system to drive continual quality improvement and inform parents about service quality, the Early Years Learning Framework and a streamlined regulatory mechanism.

Importance of consultation

The Rudd Government has made a long term commitment to improving opportunities for Australian children - and consultation with early childhood professionals and those experienced in this area is critical to getting it right.

Your views and thoughts today are important. I assure you they will be taken seriously and used to inform the implementation of the universal access program as it’s rolled out across the country.

As you would know, we’ve conducted a separate public consultation process on the quality reform agenda.

And I must say the response to that process was very encouraging. Over 2500 people participated in 48 public consultation sessions across the country. Another 265 people were involved in focus group discussions, and we received around 350 written submissions.

A key message from those sessions was that learning and care must be child-focussed, play- based, and built on positive, supportive relationships between children, carers, teachers and parents.

This requires a qualified and stable workforce, professionals who have a good understanding of child development, and adequate child to staff ratios. Given the current state of play, this is clearly a challenge to delivering our early childhood reforms.

The data on the early childhood workforce is patchy, but we do know there are about 19 000 early childhood teachers and around 90 000 workers in child care services Australia-wide.

While it’s important to increase the overall supply of early childhood workers, we should acknowledge that we currently have an underqualified workforce.

This in no way is meant to detract from the many committed child care workers who, despite having no formal qualifications, are marvellous at their jobs. It is more a reflection that their work is not properly recognised.

We need to retain these carers in the early childhood workforce, but we do need to encourage them to enhance their training and qualifications if we are to raise standards overall, and the status of the profession as a whole. And to help do that, we have several initiatives underway which you will hear about in more detail later today.

Conclusion

It’s obvious that there are a number of policy objectives and challenges involved in implementing our commitments on universal access and early learning and care centres.

We’re working with our state and territory colleagues through COAG to agree on the fundamental policy elements and get a better understanding of the different starting points in each jurisdiction.

While we are still in the exploratory stages, I encourage you to consider, as a collective, how you can all contribute to the bigger picture —a stronger, more cohesive, well-functioning early childhood system that meets the needs of children and parents.

This will require new ways of working together to overcome some of the artificial distinctions which divide the sector, create confusion for parents but, worst of all, cause some children to miss out altogether on quality early childhood experiences.

This is an unfair situation that, if left unchecked, will have a profound effect on this and future generations of young Australians.

We are talking about preparing children for the most important journey of all: life. We are talking about issues that will affect the very fabric of our society into the future. The stakes are high, but if we work together and get it right, the benefits will be enormous.

THANK YOU.

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