Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Shaping quality outcomes for Australian children: speech to the Childcare Associations Australia National Forum 2007, Canberra.



Download PDFDownload PDF

1

Jenny Macklin MP

Shadow Minister for Families and Community Services Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation

Speech to the Childcare Associations Australia National Forum 2007

‘Shaping quality outcomes for Australian children’

Canberra 5 March 2007

Thank you for your invitation to be here today.

I’m here this morning before kicking off a 10 day road trip across northern Australia.

Over the next ten days I’ll be visiting many Indigenous communities, right across our top end, from Cape York, to Arnhem Land, and then across into the Kimberley.

I’ll be getting to see first hand what’s happening in these communities, and to see what they’re doing well. Because there are many success stories happening right now in many communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are some of the most disadvantaged Australians. But there are great things going on right across the country, and I want to see what’s working, and learn how we can make these positive experiences work elsewhere. We are committed to helping redress the disadvantage faced by many Indigenous communities.

Which is also why I believe that the two portfolio areas for which I have responsibility - Indigenous Affairs and Families and Community Services - present a real opportunity to take positive action.

Because I fundamentally believe, and it’s backed up by all the international evidence, that the best way to help overcome disadvantage in all communities - Indigenous and non-Indigenous - to invest our efforts early.

Improving life outcomes begins with quality learning and development for our children. And improving opportunities and outcomes for all in our community is what I’m passionate about. Helping people lift themselves out of poverty and

overcome social disadvantage must be a core priority for a progressive and compassionate society, with leadership from a similarly minded Government.

Every child deserves the best start in life. Early learning is central to giving children that opportunity.

As parents, we have the highest aspirations for our children.

2

Most of us know, we have an innate feeling, that if children’s learning and development start early, they would be spared a variety of problems that plague many adults.

We can see the potential in our children as they grow. How much they learn, and how quickly they learn it.

It’s no surprise then that our individual instincts about early learning are supported by an overwhelming international research and policy consensus. Nobel Prize winners, the United Nations, the World Bank, the OECD, international think tanks, and the governments of Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Denmark to name a few all agree on the importance of early childhood learning.

I think the World Bank summed it up pretty clearly, when evaluating the impact of early childhood development, by concluding “It is never too early to become involved but it can easily be too late.”

The international consensus has landed firmly on the side of increased investment in the early years. The debate is over.

That’s why Federal Labor has announced a significant new Commonwealth commitment to the early years.

In the first chapter of his education revolution, in the first costed policy announcement since becoming Federal Labor leader, Kevin Rudd has committed Labor to making early childhood a national priority.

According to the OECD, Australia spends just 0.1 per cent of GDP on pre-school education, compared with an OECD average of 0.5 per cent.

If we are to compete in the world, and guarantee the best possible start in life for our children, that performance just simply isn’t good enough anymore.

And turning around our performance demands national leadership.

Under a Federal Labor government, all Australian four-year-olds will have enshrined in a new Commonwealth Early Childhood Education Act a universal right to access early learning programs.

We will make an additional Commonwealth investment of $450 million each year to make sure that all four-year-olds are eligible to receive 15 hours a week of government funded early learning programs, for a minimum of 40 weeks a year,

delivered by degree qualified early childhood teachers. This structured play based learning will assist the development of children’s pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills.

The size of our new commitment underlines just how important we believe the early years to be.

3

And we are going to need your help to make it work. We want our new early learning programs to be delivered flexibly, so that early learning is accessible to all four year olds across a range of care settings.

Early learning programs will be provided in preschools, kindergartens or as specific programs by existing childcare providers - public, private or community-based. For too long early childhood education and child care have been viewed as separate activities. Parents do not see it this way. Children are always ready to learn, no matter what environment they are in. Labor is concerned with the quality of the learning, not whether it is delivered by a private Long Day Care provider or a State Government preschool.

Many of your centres are already leading the way in wrapping early learning programs into a long day care setting, we want to work with you to expand this model into new areas, and we’ll provide the extra money to make it work

Considerable evidence, as I mentioned earlier, demonstrates that early learning programs have particular benefit for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A priority for implementation of our new programs will be expanding early learning into areas of economic and social disadvantage, and especially into Indigenous communities.

We understand our goal is ambitious, and will take time to implement. The international experience is that it’s only through a long term early years agenda that the benefits can be realised. Our goal is for access to early learning programs to be achieved five years after passage of the new Act.

The other significant barrier facing expansion of services and programs is the availability of suitably qualified staff. We understand this problem, and that’s why our new policy also contains a significant workforce strategy.

The increased demand for early childhood education and care services is creating a workforce crisis. Parents want to know that the staff looking after, nurturing and encouraging the learning of their children are highly skilled and experienced. Without a nationally coordinated workforce strategy for the early childhood sector, Australia will soon face a staffing crisis as they seek to find learning and care services.

To help meet the childcare sector’s workforce needs, Labor will expand the number of university places to train early childhood educators. We will increase the number of fully funded commencing university places in early childhood education over the next three years, and by 2010 there will be an extra 1,500 early childhood students beginning their course every year.

This comes on top of our commitment to get rid of TAFE fees for all childcare trainees studying a Diploma level children’s services qualification.

Getting new university trained graduates to stay working in the industry can be a challenge, and we want to offer incentives to get highly qualified early childhood educators into areas of specific need.

4

We will pay half of the HECS repayments of up to 10,000 early childhood graduates working in areas of specific need, such as rural and regional areas, Indigenous communities and areas of socio-economic disadvantage.

This HECS remission will be available for a period of up to five years from graduation, while the graduate continues to work in an approved centre, and will save an individual over $1,000 a year in their first year, increasing to over $1,200 per year as their salary increases.

We hope that by giving an extra financial incentive for graduates to work in areas of need, their expertise can be used to support children in those communities who will benefit the most from early learning programs.

The developmental benefits of enhancing early learning programs for young children is a key driver of Labor’s early childhood policies.

The other critical reason for improving childcare, and access to it, is to help us lift workforce participation, especially amongst women.

My vision for childcare in Australia rests upon this dual approach of firstly improving children’s development, and secondly lifting workforce participation.

Meeting the participation challenge will be a key ingredient in maintaining our economic prosperity.

We saw last week how vulnerable global economic conditions are to even the slightest jitters in the Chinese economy.

A new economic approach is required in Australia that links prosperity to improved productivity and increased participation.

In the longer term, our early childhood education agenda will help lift our productivity by training a smarter workforce.

In the shorter term, lifting participation requires Government to improve the accessibility of childcare.

Last week the Productivity Commission released a report on the potential benefits from the National Reform Agenda, which includes a focus on the early years and childcare.

The report surveyed contemporary research of Australian workforce trends, which suggests that, “on average, there is a high level of preference for part time work among Australian women with children, particularly those with young children”.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that 27 per cent of women aged 25 to 44 who were not in the workforce, but who wanted to work, said they would prefer part time work.

5

That’s why childcare is so important. Many women with children want to work, and they want to be able to work flexibly so they can raise their children and remain engaged in the workforce. Their choice in doing so requires childcare that’s available to meet their needs, and they need more support from Government to do this.

Again the Productivity Commission shows that cost and quality of child care were barriers to workforce participation for about 30 per cent of women aged 25 to 44, while a further 10 per cent could not access child care at all.

The OECD’s Going for Growth 2005 report cites evidence of a positive relationship between higher workforce participation for women in countries with generous childcare subsidies. Other researchers have estimated that if Australia’s expenditure on childcare were increased up to OECD average, the participation rate of women aged 25-54 would increase by 3.0 percentage points.

Lifting workforce participation, especially for women, requires better access to childcare, and the Commonwealth Government should be helping more. Especially given the clear economic benefits of increased participation.

Recent analysis by the Taskforce on Care Costs shows an alarming decline in childcare affordability. A new Childcare Affordability Index, developed by Saul Eslake at ANZ Economics, shows out-of-pocket childcare costs increasing much faster than household disposable income, meaning parents have felt a decline in childcare affordability of over fifty per cent in the last five years.

A national survey from the Taskforce also showed that over 1 in 4 (28%) working parents are likely to leave the workforce in future because of the high cost of care for children under school age. Alarmingly, the survey revealed that 1 in 4 carers have

already reduced their hours of work because of the high cost of care for children under school age.

Instead of tackling childcare access and affordability problems, the Howard Government’s current policy priorities may be making things worse.

Many mums with kids have a preference for returning to work part time. However under the Howard Government’s extreme industrial relations changes, many are worse off. New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics says that Australian women on AWAs who work part time are earning $3.70 less per hour than those on collective agreements. Men in a similar position, working part time on AWAs are earning $5.50 an hour less than those on collective agreements.

We can’t meet the participation challenge required by our economy if part time workers are earning less, as is occurring under these new industrial laws. If they are earning less, then they are less able to afford childcare, and the evidence shows are more likely to drop out of the workforce.

Yet again, the Howard Government’s policies just don’t make any sense.

6

My vision for childcare in Australia, based on its dual goals of supporting early development of our children and lifting workforce participation, will only be achieved through a strong partnership with the childcare sector.

I want to work with you to improve childcare, and associated early years services, throughout Australia.

And I come to this task focused on getting the highest quality outcomes.

Despite only being in this portfolio for a couple of months, already some things are pretty clear. As a system, childcare in Australia is being consumed by a lot of red tape and bureaucracy coming from Canberra. The new Child Care Management System, and associated rules, look like a real headache for operators. We will also be

watching carefully the introduction of the new Access Card, and how that may be applied to childcare services.

Labor wants to work with the sector to maintain high quality standards, but without an intrusive bureaucratic approach. We want to make sure that the quality assurance process is able to drive quality improvement, lifting up standards. And we want consider any benefits that would arise from harmonising the licensing regimes across Australia, to move everyone to the highest standards, no matter where you are, no matter whether you’re public, private, or community based.

Our early childhood education policy was a significant new policy direction and a substantial new investment. But we’re not stopping there. I am now looking at the nought to threes, and what needs to be done to better support that age group.

Federal Labor wants to maintain an open dialogue with you about the best ways to give our children the opportunity to live a fulfilling, productive and happy life.

We want to work with you to make sure our childcare sector is meeting the needs of parents, and taking the best possible care of our children.

This year is going to be busy, and we’re facing a long, tough election campaign. But I’m confident that Labor’s new directions for Australia will bring a new era a positive growth for our nation, and especially for our children.