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The quiet revolution in childcare:

The policy underpinnings of the change from childcare to early childhood education and care and what it means for your child.
By Margaret Clark
Date: December 02 2012
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Over the last decade there has been a quiet revolution to our understandings and structures of childcare in Australia.

When I had young children in the 1980s childcare was for me, the parent (mostly the mother) and preschool was for the child. This distinction is well on the way to disappearing.

What are the implications of this transformation for parents of young children?

Firstly parents may have noticed a change in the language used around childcare.

It is now known formally as the early childhood education and care sector in recognition of the fact that care arrangements for young children are also places where young children’s emotional and cognitive growth can thrive, given the right environment.

In keeping with this you may have noticed that government responsibility for the early childhood area has, in the main, transferred from a community services type department to the education area in recognition of this important shift.  But to make this a reality requires more than a change in our language.

The second area of change – the deeper structural and cultural changes - are being brought about under the banner of the National Quality Framework. You will start to see the impact of this over 2013 and 2014.

This includes:

  • a reduced staff:child ratio to allow educators working with very young children to have more time to develop warm and caring relationships with them;
  • a new compulsory national standards and quality rating system. As part of this, each education and care centre will receive an overall rating following an assessment by a qualified assessor. These ratings will be publicly available to assist families to make decisions; anchanged requirements for the qualifications mix of staff.

Now this is a very large and complex part of the education sector – in many ways more complex than the schooling sector.

This is because, while there are just under 1 million children in some form of approved early childhood education and care, there are nearly 14,000 approved service providers offering formal early childhood education and care around Australia – a number that will continue to grow.Up until recently the data collected about this sector was fragmented and ad hoc and there is a lot of catch up to do.

These reforms are very ambitious and changes will not occur overnight. 

For example, when the ratings are made public, you might notice that there will be many areas where large number of providers will not fully meet the qualification standards.  This will not mean ‘this centre is substandard’ or that it will ‘put your child at risk’  - not at all.  The reality is that under the current state based systems most providers meet all standards. But the new framework is deliberately designed to lift the bar – to drive higher standards and allow room for continuous improvement  - particularly around their role in supporting children’s learning.

The changes to the qualifications of staff will be particularly challenging. By January 2014 half of all staff at every long day care centre or preschool must have (or be working towards) a diploma level early childhood qualification. The remaining staff will all be required to have (or be working towards) a Certificate III level early childhood education and care qualification.

There are also requirements relating early childhood teachers in long daycare and preschool services for 25 children or more.

Now childcare workers, even with a Certificate lll in early childhood education and care, are not at all well paid, which is an area that has not been explicitly addressed by Government. In part, this is because the whole approach to the delivery of children’s services has been to supplement costs for parents and then let ‘the market’ decide. Where the Federal Government has intervened, it is to subsidise qualification upgrades and the building of new preschool services.

But to date, this approach does not appear to have had any impact on staff pay in this sector. What we are seeing instead is more and more complaints from service providers about the difficulty of attracting and retaining staff and high staff turnover. 

Of course, this undermines the intent of the reforms. Having a lower staff to child ratio so emotional and social bonds can form, assumes some degree of staff continuity.

But on the bright side we are also witnessing the rise of a very strong vibrant and well-organised campaign to draw attention to this problem and to demand Government intervention. You may have seen, or even joined in the Big Steps campaign which Motherpedia wrote about recently.

You will be able to find more information than ever before about how different services perform against the new national standards. But you should also use your own judgment about what works for you and your child, and you should also ask questions about the things that matter to you. Staff turnover might be a good place to start. 

There are other things that might matter too. For example, I recently took my grandson aged 18 months to a service that was recommended to me as warm and caring. It was; but I noticed immediately that staff seemed obsessed about tidying-up as children moved between activity and that this was to the detriment of quality time with the little ones. I enquired in a roundabout way and found out that they only get paid for the hours that the service is in session so, of course, they have to tidy up as they go – they need to end the day with a 100% neat centre. I was not happy with this and even a high rating would not have convinced me.

I hope this has given you a bit of a background to the changes and how they might impact on you if you are thinking of using children’s education and care services. 

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