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Opinion: the time to fix Jobs for Families is now

At face value, the last federal Budget was a boon for early childhood. It featured the announcement of an extra $3.5 billion under a new Child Care Assistance Package, more money for preschool access and inclusion support.

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) welcomed the proposed new Child Care Subsidy last year, hoping it would improve access to early childhood services for many working families.

One year on and the gloss has come off the Child Care Package. Modelling carried out by the Australian National University (commissioned by Early Childhood Australia) revealed that up to 130,000 children may be worse off as a result of a new activity test, that $300 million was shaved off the package and that high-income earners would see their subsidies cut to 20 per cent.

The early childhood sector is now grappling with a dilemma as the legislation implementing the package is held up in the Senate.

On one hand, a more effective subsidy system is urgently needed and the proposed package will reduce the cost of childcare for most working families. On the other hand, early childhood advocates are extremely concerned by the design of the activity test and the impact it will have on access to early learning for vulnerable children.

Some sector leaders have called on the government to bring on the debate about the package. And with the recall of Parliament next week, there is still an opportunity to debate the Jobs for Families Child Care Package in the week before the Budget.

Let’s get it right now, for the future.
We know from the evidence that early learning amplifies children’s development if it is provided for the right duration.

Early Childhood Australia would like to see Jobs for Families pass – but with several key amendments. We would rather get the package right, so that the most vulnerable children in Australia, who need access to early learning the most, don’t miss out.

The activity test is meant to be an inducement for both parents to work, study or volunteer at least eight hours a fortnight. But, in reality, many vulnerable families where both parents can’t meet these conditions will probably just withdraw their children from childcare.

Low-income families will still have access to 12 hours a week but this is a significant reduction from their current entitlement to 24 hours a week and means it will be insufficient to cover two days in a long daycare centre in the important early years.

A lesser-known fact in all this is that families with one working parent earning more than $65,000, and the other parent not able to meet the activity test, will lose all subsidies.

To stop a generation of young children missing out on access to early learning just because of their parent’s circumstances, ECA proposes three key amendments to the legislation:

  • Apply the activity test only after two days of early learning – so that all children can have access to valuable early learning
  • Safeguard higher levels of access for low-income families (below $65,710 annual household income), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, and children with a disability
  • Increase transitional provision from two weeks to six weeks to allow families more time before they lose their subsidy.

With key changes, Jobs for Families could be a winner
The government has a great opportunity to fix the package in the budget ahead of an election. Providing two days a week to all children would simplify the package and improve it for all children and families. With some small changes, this has potential to make the package an election winner at just the right time.

There are also other key issues that should be addressed in this budget, as outlined in ECA’s submission to Treasury:

  • Guaranteeing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continued access to early learning
  • Providing durable and consistent preschool funding arrangements. The current funding, for 15 hours of preschool a week in the year before school, ends in 2017
  • Funding the development of a new Early Years Workforce Strategy. The current strategy is due to expire this year, as are a host of early childhood professional development programs.

Workforce strategy and professional development initiatives are badly needed
The professional development of the workforce is critical to delivering quality early learning that amplifies children’s development. If we want to ensure that children have access to quality early learning professionals, then planning and preparation is required in the budget.

As indicated above, the Early Years Workforce Strategy which, began in 2013, is due to expire this year. Other professional development programs and initiatives for early childhood professionals are also due to finish, and there is no clear plan to make further professional development opportunities available.

The government has announced it will no longer fund professional support co-ordinators from July, as part of its new inclusion support program. A range of other major programs have also ceased, which previously covered the breadth of early childhood qualifications required under the National Quality Framework.

ECA calls on the government and all political parties to commit to an early childhood workforce strategy and new professional support initiatives, improve the quality of early childhood services and continue to support quality improvement over the next four to 10 years.

This long-term strategy must recognise that early childhood professionals are poorly paid, and plan for responses to the current Equal Remuneration Case Fair Work Australia is considering.

These are all important issues that should be dealt with in the federal Budget. If they are not, they instead become critical election commitments that must be addressed.

We urge all parties to commit to ensuring that young children can access the quality early learning that amplifies their development and contributes to Australia’s future prosperity.

Samantha Page is chief executive of Early Childhood Australia.

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