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Select Committee on Work and Care

PAGE, Ms Samantha, Chief Executive Officer, Early Childhood Australia


CHAIR: I now welcome Ms Samantha Page of Early Childhood Australia. Would you like to make a short opening statement before I invite members of the committee to ask you questions?

Ms Page : Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here. It's such an important inquiry that you're holding. By way of background, Early Childhood Australia is a national network of early childhood professionals and service providers. They give us the mandate to talk on behalf of children. Our advocacy is about the best interests of children and rights of children and, in particular, the right of children to high quality play based early education and care. It's a pleasure to make a submission. My apologies that we didn't submit it in advance, but I have just provided the secretariat with a copy of our submission.

We'd like to start with a focus on building the workforce for tomorrow. The role of early childhood education and care is really important for children's start to their education journey. We believe that universal access to high quality early childhood education and care benefits all children, but it particularly benefits those at risk of poor educational attainment. One child in five currently starts school developmentally vulnerable; that increases to two children in five for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. We just don't believe that's acceptable.

We support the Alice Springs declaration on education in setting goals for the system to promote excellence and equity and to ensure that all young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners and active and informed members of their community. But, to achieve these goals, we need to start in the early years. Ninety per cent of brain development happens before children turn five. It's really important that our early education and care is of the highest quality, and for children—particularly those from birth to three—who do attend early childhood settings, we need our very best educators providing rich learning environments for them and secure attached relationships, so that they feel safe and they're nurtured and they're provided with lots of diverse learning experiences.

It's really from the age of three that children benefit from being in quality early learning settings—with other children, because they learn not only from educators and teachers but also from the other children that they participate in those programs with. At the moment, we're not doing very well in terms of the participation of children from the age of three. We have good rates of participation for children at four and five, before they transition to school, because of the work done under the national partnership agreement on preschool, but we lag behind other developed countries when it comes to access for children at the age of three, and we'd really like this committee to understand the importance of that, which we articulated in more detail in the submission, and we have made a number of recommendations.

One of our recommendations is to look at a new funding model for remote and complex environments, and particularly for Aboriginal community controlled organisations. We support SNAICC's leadership in this space, and I understand they've also made a submission to the inquiry.

We also support the adoption of a three-day guarantee, which has been articulated in the Centre for Policy Development report Starting better. That suggests that children from the age of three really should have at least three days a week of access to high quality early education and care.

We'd also like to see the preschool reform agreement extended to children from the age of three. That's really driving collaborative work between the federal government and the states and territories in that space.

We'd like firmer commitments to lifting participation rates for vulnerable cohorts, which include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children but also children with additional needs and developmental concerns, children living in rural or remote areas and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. We think those children are particularly at risk of missing out.

Our second area of focus in our submission is women's workforce participation. I was lucky to be at the Jobs and Skills Summit, and I would like to give credit to Danielle Wood for her opening keynote address, where she noted that Australia ranks 38th in the world on women's workforce participation, despite having world-leading levels of female education. This is a significant inhibitor on our economy, and we've a major opportunity to address this. I agreed, and enjoyed her assessment that, if untapped women's workforce participation were a massive iron-ore deposit, we would have governments tripping over themselves or lining up to give tax concessions to get it out of the ground. That's what we need, in terms of investment in early childhood education and care, in order to support families' workforce participation but, we know, particularly women's workforce participation.

The review of the government's childcare package tells us that there are still a number of barriers to that. One of those is the activity test. The activity test is keeping a lot of families with tenuous workforce participation out of subsidised early childhood education and care. We have quite a specific proposal about collapsing the bottom two levels of the activity test so that all children can have 36 hours a week rather than the current 12 hours a week. But we think that that would remove a barrier.

In particular, we've always felt that the activity test is back to front. Families need to settle children into early childhood education and care in order to take, particularly, casual work and short-term contracts, not the other way round. So we shouldn't be treating workforce participation as a prerequisite; we should be seeing early childhood education and care as an enabler—particularly for women returning after having a child and needing to re-establish themselves in the workforce. We support the Labor government's increase to childcare subsidies but reiterate that, without addressing the activity test, we won't see the full benefit of that, because it is the low-income households who have the most difficulty regaining their footing in work, and that's where the activity test is presenting a barrier.

The other barrier is the thin markets that we have in certain areas. Many of you will have seen the Mitchell Institute report on oases and deserts in long day care particularly. We have areas of oversupply and areas of undersupply, and, at an even more complex level, we have the undersupply of certain age groups. There are fewer baby places in the system than there are places for preschool-aged children, and that's because the subsidy is a flat benchmark fee and doesn't account for the higher cost of delivery to babies. What we really think is that there needs to be a stewardship approach to how the services are provided across the country and to address areas where there is currently either undersupply of services completely or undersupply of places for younger children particularly.

We also support the extension of paid parental leave, and that's in order to support families to balance and make decisions about what time they spend at home with young children. We know the benefits to young children of having parents at home for as long as possible and we support adding superannuation to paid parental leave to address the motherhood penalty that has been well documented in other literature.

Lastly, we wanted to talk a little about balancing work and care. We know that this is an area of challenge for families with young children. If we have a strong universal basis of early childhood education and care, we can add lots of programs to that. We can add support to families with parenting. We can add literacy and language development programs. And we can also address early intervention. There's a huge cost to late intervention. If children start school behind their peers, they tend to stay behind their peers; it's very hard to catch them up. But there's enormous opportunity to provide good-quality early intervention services before children begin school. We would reap the benefits in terms of both better support for families experiencing those difficulties and more workforce participation outcomes.

That's a bit of a rapid summary of our submission, but I'm happy to take any questions.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Page. We now have a copy of your submission, so thank you for that and for your time. I'll go first to Senator Bragg, who has some questions for you. He's online.

Senator BRAGG: Thanks very much for being here today. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your view on the current system we have, where we think that a large proportion of the CCS does go through the centres for preschool children. Do you have a particular view about the efficiency and productivity of that system?

Ms Page : I'm not quite sure I understand the question—of the entire childcare subsidy system or specifically in relation to preschool?

Senator BRAGG: I'd be interested if you have a broader view as well, but we heard evidence this morning that the bulk of the CCS, in terms of the proportion of people, goes through to the preschool sector, as opposed to it being used for after-school care, for example. I wondered if you had a view about those two sectors.

Ms Page : The bulk of childcare subsidy would be paid to long-day-care services, which would be providing a preschool program as part of the offering. The reason so much of the subsidy would go to that part of the sector is that children are in there for a lot longer, in terms of hours. They generally attend two or three days a week, and the session times are generally 11 hours a day. And that's to give families flexibility at the beginning and end of the day. Children wouldn't actually attend 12 hours a day, but some families need to drop off early and some families need to pick up late, so the service as a whole operates across that long-day period in order to provide flexibility to families. It's really the number of hours that children spend in long day care compared to outside school hours that would result in the outcome you're talking about, in terms of the majority of the childcare subsidy going to long day care.

Going forward, with the government committed to funding 90 per cent of a universal system, a subsidy voucher system probably doesn't make sense. There are alternative funding models that would make more sense and be more efficient.

Senator BRAGG: That's really my question. Given that most preschool children are, as you say, in long-day-care centres, what are the alternative approaches we could deploy here?

Ms Page : Do you mean other approaches to funding, specifically?

Senator BRAGG: Let's imagine that there's a pocket of funding, which I think the department said today was about $10 billion. That's covering more than just preschool—that's covering after-school care and everything else—but let's just imagine we have this envelope of $10 billion for preschool, or long day care, as you call it. What would be the best bang for buck? It seems to me we are very reliant upon these centres and they do seem to be having some labour shortages at the present time, which shouldn't be an excuse for not doing things. I'm wondering what other options we might be able to deploy.

Ms Page : It's a good point. I'm sorry I didn't cover it. We do have some recommendations in our submission about workforce shortages as well. I was worried I was taking up too much of the committee's time.

Senator BRAGG: Yes. I don't have your submission, sorry.

Ms Page : But you're absolutely correct: there are significant workforce shortages happening in the early childhood sector at the moment. The total spend on early education, if we include the spending from the states and territories on preschool programs as well as the parent contribution through fees, is more like $12 billion to $14 billion. That's what I've seen estimated that we spend in this country on early education. Could we get a better deal for that investment? I think, yes, we could.

I think we should move more towards a funding model like the school system. Some people in the early childhood sector feel concerned when I say that. I'm not suggesting that we just put early childhood education into schools or deliver it in the same way that we deliver schools. That's not what I mean, but I do think children should have a right of access and services should be funded to provide that access. We shouldn't be relying on private sector decision-making about whether services are available in one community or another. We really should be taking a much more proactive approach to that—planning services and where they're needed, predicting population changes and making sure we have the services where families need them. I think if you had more of a direct funding model and you were basing that on expected population levels of children, you could do that.

We are, however, very reliant at the moment on private sector investment, in long-day-care centres particularly but also in services such as outside school hours care. There may well be another model whereby that capital equity could stay in the system in terms of owning the buildings and owning the property, as a mixed model, but we could fund the wages of educators and teachers more directly through a funding model more similar to a school system—whereby children have a right of access, a certain volume of delivery is available in every area, and we have a more direct line of sight between the public investment and the wages paid to educators and teachers.

Senator BRAGG: There do seem to be a lot of similarities between this privatised model and the superannuation scheme, which is also very inefficient in some ways. I wonder sometimes if the public investment would be better going directly into the establishment of publicly run organisations in some form. Have you done any economic analysis to support this proposition?

Ms Page : Not yet. We are having lots of conversations. There are some very interesting international dialogues going on about funding models for early childhood education and care. Goodstart had some professors from the Netherlands and the UK in the country last week, who we were lucky enough to meet with—Paul Leseman, for example, from the Netherlands—looking at different approaches to funding, particularly where you have a mixed market of private and public delivery. I think we will have that for a while in Australia, because we are so heavily reliant on private sector investment, but government can have a much stronger presence in setting the values and the requirements of the service delivery, the quality standards and the way services are provided and can have more control over the wages that are paid to educators and teachers.

Senator BRAGG: I know you're busy and you've got lots on, so I don't want to burden you with too many dreadful questions on notice, but it would be good to get a sense of—we've got a funding envelope of, let's say, $12 billion: 'Here's what we're currently getting for that, with this hybrid that's heavily reliant upon the childcare providers model. What could we get if we had a more direct payment or more direct approach of doing it under the auspices of the public system, in some form?' That's where I have a lot of interest, because it's very clear that there's a lot of money sloshing around, and I'm pleased to hear you're doing some work in that. Maybe over the term of this inquiry you'll be able to give us some advice on how you think that could be done.

Ms Page : It's certainly work that we want to do, leading into the planned Productivity Commission inquiry next year, and I know a lot of others are also considering what work needs to be done in order to help inform that process and give some suggestions. It's a big piece of work. I'm not sure I can get it done in the time period that you're looking for but we could certainly put some ideas forward.

Senator BRAGG: I understand that, Ms Page. I'd just make the point to you that the parliament will have to consider legislation on some of these matters, I imagine in the next six months, on the changes to the CCS, and we'll be doing that in isolation of having all this other information. While I am personally supportive of expanding the CCS, I am obviously cautious because there are structural issues here that haven't been resolved, and we're cherry-picking one thing out of it ahead of doing the broader piece of work and analysis. So I think your contribution here will be very much valued.

Ms Page : Thank you, that's terrific to hear. You're right, we have said this in the submission. We absolutely support the increase in the childcare subsidy rates, but we won't realise the full benefit of that until we address the activity test barriers. We are at risk of exacerbating disadvantage for those children that are missing out. We also won't get the full benefit of the increase to the childcare subsidy rates unless we address the workforce shortages.

Senator BRAGG: Just before I sign off, if you could provide as much as you can, on notice, about the alternative options here for the expenditure, I think that would be much appreciated.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Brag, and I totally second what you've asked for there. I think the committee would find that incredibly useful, even if it's not fully developed, even if it's in broadbrush strokes, what the options are and setting out your scheme.

Senator WHITE: I want to ask you about workforce shortages. I've quickly looked at your paper about that. Can you outline what the current state is, and the state of the shortages, and whether you saw it get worse during the COVID time?

Ms Page : Yes. It did exacerbate existing workforce shortages. There were workforce shortages before COVID, but we've seen many of those shortages double and triple, in terms of seriousness, as a result of COVID. We have higher rates of job vacancies, higher turnover rates, providers suggesting that their turnover rate's gone from, say, 12 per cent to 20 or 30 per cent, and that's very concerning.

I don't think we can overstate the level of crisis that the workforce has been in just recently, and it's partly because of winter. So coughs and colds as well as COVID have meant that we've had a high rate of absenteeism due to illness. Whether that will improve a little bit as we come out into the warmer months, possibly, but then we've also missed on overseas migration for the past couple of years and we realise, during COVID, just how many people in our workforce were on temporary visas. So there's a complex interconnection of factors causing this. The difficulty is that we'd need to try and retain the educators and teachers and leaders that we have in the sector right now, in order to try and stabilise the workforce and then start building back up. I think there are, therefore, short-term strategies and long-term strategies. I absolutely support the National Workforce Strategy and the implementation plan that was released very recently in terms of capturing the longer term strategies to address workforce issues, and those go to respect for the work that educators and teachers do, long-term gender parity in terms of pay and conditions, supporting people to engage and complete qualifications and understand career paths, attracting people into the sector and educator wellbeing. Some really excellent work has gone into that National Workforce Strategy, and we should implement that with haste. However, it is very long term, and I think we need more immediate, short-term intervention, just to try and stabilise the workforce right now. I do think that has to be a pay increase or a retention bonus or something to address the wage rates. Wages have become the most common reason given for people leaving the sector. There are still other factors, like workload and stress, but wages seem to be the No. 1 reason why people are leaving. Even if a one-off increase—or a one-off retention payment, for example, if we can negotiate that—isn't the whole solution, it would at least show a sign of faith to this workforce that more is coming, that things are going to get better. It would try and hold the people who are really, really tired from COVID.

Centre directors were in a really unenviable position through COVID. They were coping with rapidly changing and sometimes conflicting health advice, they were half closing centres but keeping operating, they were managing staff anxiety and family anxiety, and they were trying to operate under very different conditions. And there were changes to the funding model, so we had free child care for a period of time, then we had emergency payments for a period of time, and we had JobKeeper payments that were available to some and not others. It was a very complex time, and everybody's quite tired. Now what they're dealing with is very difficult rostering. I know a service—I can see that the director is online on Sundays trying to resolve the problems with the roster for the week. I can see that every morning she is dealing with people calling in sick. One director I was talking to said, of a staff of 16, on any given day, she has five people unavailable to work. That is exhausting—that level of rostering changes and trying to stay on top of that.

So I think something immediate that is a sign of faith would help hold and stabilise the workforce, and then I think we need to get on fairly quickly with looking at pay parity for teachers in schools. A teacher is a teacher. They've done the same degree and they do the same work; their work should be valued at the same rate—and also people with certificate and diploma level qualifications compared to similar qualifications across the education system.

Senator WHITE: I guess, as you say, then, if you could halve your turnover rate, that would put 15 per cent more people back into the workforce immediately.

Ms Page : Yes.

Senator WHITE: If you could cut the turnover rate annually, that would make a significant difference.

Ms Page : I think it would make a very significant difference. The other thing ECA is doing is we've commissioned a small piece of work to look at where people who've left the sector in the last five years are at the moment, what they're earning, how satisfied they are in their positions and whether anything would attract them back. I think we have a lot of people in the community who have early childhood qualifications but are choosing not to work in the early childhood sector at the moment. If we could better understand why that is and see whether there is anything that would bring them back to the sector, that would be another short-term solution while we work on the longer-term settings.

Senator WHITE: It's a bit like bringing back nurses during COVID to try and entice them back to health.

Ms Page : Yes.

Senator WHITE: Do you think it's pay that will attract people who have left back?

Ms Page : Pay is a big part of it. But it's a little bit more complicated than that in that I think it's the pay for the level of workload and stress. Do you know what I mean?

Senator WHITE: Yes, I do.

Ms Page : So people are saying, 'I can earn this amount of money in a much less stressful role in another sector, so why would I stay in early childhood, where it's stressful and it's hard?' Because the sector has been in crisis, if educators are working in different rooms every day, on different shift patterns all the time, that makes the work so much harder to do. So I think we need to try and stabilise the workforce so we can make it more enjoyable again. We ran a quick survey of the sector, leading into the Jobs and Skills Summit. What we heard—No. 1—was that educators and teachers are feeling exhausted and they're feeling stressed and they're feeling fed up, but they still do experience happiness and joy and work satisfaction out of the work they do with children. So it's not all bleak, and we don't want to catastrophise it completely. What we want to do is get back to providing educators and teachers with stability of working hours, stability of relationships with children, back to the joy of teaching and enjoying the work.

I know educators will also say that the level of documentation of work adds to the workload and makes it difficult. That's often misinterpreted as documenting children's learning, which doesn't necessarily need to be particularly onerous. There's a whole lot of other documentation that services have to do, around food regulations, around incident reporting, around childcare subsidy management and other things, where I do think there's opportunity to streamline some of that and make the work easier.

Senator WHITE: I guess it would be irksome to see somebody who has fewer qualifications than you but, because of the industry they're in and the make-up of the workforce—for instance, if it's male dominated—they get more money than you. I guess that would be quite distressing. I'm interested in where people have gone, then. What are you hearing? Where do they go to? They're going to easier jobs but are they trying to get into these jobs that are more male dominated because they get paid more for less work, potentially?

Ms Page : It's a really interesting question and one of the reasons why we've commissioned some work into that. I do think you're right. The turn-up for the day of action the other week was just extraordinary, much higher than we've seen in previous years. I think women, collectively, are saying, 'We've had enough. We've had enough of being poorly paid and our work not being valued.' I think that is part of it.

We have quite a high social media presence at ECA and we monitor social media quite a lot. We see a lot of people talking about having left to work in the disability sector, where they can be more in control of their hours. It's not as long a day as an early childhood education service or not the split shifts of outside school hours. People working in other sectors where they have more flexibility find it less stressful to work with one child or a family than in a service setting where they're working with a high number of children. That one area we hear.

There's a bit of, 'Educators leave to work in Bunnings.' I'm not sure that we have any evidence of that. I don't know that the retail sector is particularly better paid or has better hours. I think it's more likely to be in other care sectors. However, what we see is people maintaining a connection to their early childhood colleagues, maintaining a presence on early childhood groups and still talking about how they miss the children, they miss the work, almost like it's a temporary absence from the early childhood sector. So I'm hopeful that if we could improve the wages and some of the working conditions—I think there's a role for employers as well to step up around working conditions and listen to what educators and teachers are saying about that—we could attract people back.

Senator WHITE: Respect for the work is probably extremely important, and I'm incredibly happy to hear that people still find fun and enjoyment in their work. I think there's a lot more fulfilment in affecting a child's life at an early age and helping to determine their future than, potentially, fixing a pipe in a house.

Ms Page : Yes. It's very meaningful work and very rewarding work. At the same time, what we know is educators and teachers, and service leaders too, want to feel competent and they want to feel confident and they want to feel they can do their job. And if the world is going to hell in a hand basket around you and you don't feel like you can do your job, that's a powerful incentive to leave. Whereas if we can try and stabilise the workforce, make it more feasible, put some supports in place, try and make the work more manageable in the short term, I think we can get back to those conversations about the career progression and the value of the work.

It is a very good sector—a plug for the early childhood sector—for career pathways. We see a lot of young people studying. The recent workforce census told us a lot of early childhood educators in that 15 to 24 bracket are studying. They're completing a certificate or a diploma or a degree. We see a lot of people, once they've done a diploma, going on to do the degree. So it's a professional sector where people do have a career pathway.

CHAIR: I just want to make sure I've heard you properly. You're really suggesting both a long-term strategy around systemic pay rises that properly reward and respect the work, but, in the short-term, in view of the pandemic exhaustion, a show of faith—

Ms Page : Yes.

CHAIR: through a one-off payment that can hold a workforce that is in real crisis but also perhaps bring back some people who are out there on the margins and have given up—in the short term at least. So I hear 'emergency', I hear 'crisis', I hear 'reward' and I hear 'hang on to people'.

Ms Page : Thank you. I think you've expressed that very well. And I don't mean just a one-off payment, as in one payment. If we could put a retention and an attract-back bonus payment, or supplementation, or subsidy or something in place, we could bring some people back to the sector and hold the people that are in the sector while we do that longer-term work around gender pay rates, equitable rates and addressing the instruments, like the awards and the enterprise agreements, that drive wage increases over the long term.

CHAIR: And we know that can take quite a long time.

Ms Page : Absolutely, yes.

CHAIR: That's very important. I have a couple of questions and our time is short, but I hope we can get to them. You mentioned paid parental leave and its intersection with the childcare system. What are your reflections on the length of the leave at the moment? Should it be lengthened? And how does it sit with looking after babies in our early childhood system?

Ms Page : Yes, we'd absolutely love to see it lengthened. It's quite short by international comparisons, and not very generous when it's paid at the minimum wage. So we would like to see it lengthened and we'd like to see more support for employers to supplement wages up to pre-parental-leave levels. We understand that not everybody can afford to take long paid parental leave at the minimum wage. I think we need to address both the rate of paid parental leave and the length of paid parental leave. We know it's good for babies. It's very good for babies to have time at home with both parents, so we do need to make sure that we're including fathers and second carers. It's good for babies to have that time at home, and it's good for families to feel that they're not rushed back to work or rushed into the service system.

We are conscious that some families need to make that decision anyway and will come back quite early after paid parental leave, which is why early childhood education for those very children needs to be top notch—it really needs to be high quality. But, certainly, we'd like to see paid parental leave available to more families for a longer period of time at a higher rate; and we've suggested adding superannuation, to try and reduce that longer-term penalty that women, particularly, face when they take time out of the workforce.

CHAIR: You've also made the point that the period of hours that's available in quality care is especially important to our most disadvantaged kids and families, including First Nations people—that seems to be a strong point you're making also. Is that correct?

Ms Page : Absolutely, yes.

CHAIR: I want to pick up a point made by Senator Bragg around the best spend that we can make and the best structure of system. We look forward to your contribution on that down the track, but how important is planning where we put centres? If we have a lot of market provision—and I think that over 50 per cent now is for-profit provision—how does planning intersect with trying to make money out of a childcare centre you're going to go for where there aren't many babies? You said that's presumably more expensive. How important is it to have a more macro-planning approach to our early childhood education and care?

Ms Page : I think it's very important. I think we're seeing a lot of state governments paying a lot more attention to this as they try to expand their preschool participation rates to three-year-old children, realising just how patchy provision is—particularly across rural areas but also often in outer-suburban areas. I think we're really suffering from the lack of planning that we've done in early childhood services. We've kind of left it to the market, and the problem is that the market doesn't even have the information it needs to make those decisions. The market doesn't know where there are already services that are half full, or where there's demand coming—where we know there are new housing developments and there are going to be a lot of young families. That kind of information just hasn't even been available, so we've had a very ad hoc approach to where services are being built, which has been more about real estate availability and the potential return on investment from building a centre in a particular space, rather than addressing undersupply or oversupply. The other thing that doesn't help us is the fact that the benchmark childcare subsidy rate is the same for children, regardless of age. It does change by service type, but it doesn't change by age, which means that centres tend to limit the number of baby places they make available because they've got to remain viable so they need to take more older children. If we look at addressing that in the next PC process, we could increase the supply of places for younger children.

We really need—and I hate to go back to the school system again—more of a process like schooling. We need to know where the population is going to be, where the children are going to be, and put the services there. I've been in so many conversations over the years with people about it. It's so fine grained where you have undersupply or oversupply. Where I live, there might be services that have spaces available, but I'd have to go against the traffic, out of town, to get to them, which doesn't work for a family when I've got to drop another child at school and I've got to get to work. So we actually need those services to be on the transport routes, near the schools, in a sensible location that works for families. I think building more services that are next door to schools or on school sites is a good idea, but I don't think that's the whole solution. We will always need, because of the volume of services, services that are also in the community. But we need to be thinking about housing and transport routes to make sensible decisions about that. If government is going to fund 90 per cent of the provision, they have a really strong reason to want to make sure those services are in the right places.

CHAIR: Thank you so much for your contribution this morning, Ms Page. I think could have gone on a lot longer, but I really appreciate your submission and your time today. Any further information that you've undertaken to give us we'll be very happy to receive. It'd be wonderful to get it by the end of September if it's possible.

Ms Page : We'll do our best.

CHAIR: Thank you for your time.