Good results for early learning, but the devil is in the detail

The Productivity Commission contains many positive measures for Early Childhood Learning, but are they implementable? AAP

The recommendations of the Productivity Commission into Childcare and Early Learning appear to be a win for early childhood learning. However, as with many reports such as this, the devil is in the detail. One has to question how easy the recommendations will be to implement.

On a positive note, the report begins with a statement that recognises the importance of early childhood education and care. This is too often overlooked, which is surprising given the wealth of evidence regarding the benefits of quality early learning. It is important to remember that this is the draft phase and there is still room for improvement and feedback, before final decisions are made in October.

Recommendations are a mixed bag

On the one hand, it is good to see that the National Quality Framework is being retained with some streamlining and refining. The National Quality Framework implemented positive reforms in early learning including improving educator to child ratios and caregiver qualifications. To go back on these would be detrimental to Australia’s international reputation and to early learning in this country.

However, the inclusion of the National Quality Framework is the only time the report uses the word “quality”. Given that quality is such a crucial factor in determining the beneficial outcomes of early childhood learning, this lack of attention is very disturbing.

A move to a means-tested single subsidy, paid directly to the provider, must also be viewed as a positive simplification of the incredibly complicated process that now exists. Currently, families using approved child care services can choose to receive their Child Care Benefit as reduced child care fees (benefit paid direct to provider) or as a lump sum at the end of the financial year (benefit paid direct to parent).

Accessible childcare is all good and well, but it also has to be of a high quality. Shutterstock

This arrangement has made it difficult for centres to budget and access funds when they are needed. Families who received the Child Care Benefit for approved care have also been eligible to receive the Child Care Rebate, which was introduced in July 2009.

The possibility of a “top-up” additional subsidy for children with special needs or a disability is also welcome. This may go some way to producing equitable childcare for these children and their families.

However, underpinning these beneficial changes, the report states that the subsidy would be based on a set “reasonable” cost of care. This raises the question of how this deemed cost will be determined and whether quality will be a criterion in its determination.

This is the crux of the issue. If the resourcing is to be within the existing “funding envelope”, as indicated in the report, where is the funding for the recommended changes to be found?

More questions than answers

The recommendation that schools will be directed to provide preschool child care is fraught with problems. It really prompts more questions than answers.

Including three to five year-olds in out-of-hours care will require significant resourcing. This recommendation will need to take into account the particular rights of very young children to adult attention (ratios), suitable indoor and physical spaces for this age group and a program that will be appropriate for this age group.

If specialist qualifications are required to care for children in preschools, then these same qualifications must be needed for three to five year old children in out-of-hours care.

Similar issues arise with the recommendation that occasional care programs be expanded. Occasional care has traditionally been provided by preschools for short-term, needs-based care for children younger than preschool age. If this program is to be expanded, considerable resourcing will be essential to meet the needs of this younger age group (for example, sleeping facilities).

Including childcare subsidies for nannies raises questions regarding the regulation of this type of childcare and the types of qualifications that will be required. The report states that nannies will require a Certificate Three. This is the lowest childcare qualification, with training delivered and available from a range of providers of varying quality.

Regulations are important in terms of ensuring the quality of early learning. When considering nannies as a form of childcare, one must ask: will this type of childcare be subject to similar “in home” services such as Family Day Care, where providers must ensure that facilities meet occupational health and safety standards? Will carers be trained in child protection procedures and use the government’s Early Years Learning Framework to guide their decisions about the kinds of experiences they provide?

The Productivity Commission report focuses on the provision of flexible and accessible early childhood education and care. It displays a clear intent to maintain the progressive reforms instigated by the National Quality Framework. Whether this intent can be matched with reasonable quality will depend on the implementation detail and adequate resourcing of the reforms.