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The bigger kindergarten fence has to be flexible

As part of a Council of Australian Government’s commitment to improving outcomes for children in the early years, a suite of reforms is being implemented across Australia’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, under the umbrella of the National Quality Framework. While early years experts all agree the changes are long overdue, they pose some significant challenges.

A key reform is the Universal Access Policy, which promises 15 hours per week of kindergarten for every child in the year before they start school, commencing in 2013. While this sounds simple in theory, kindergarten (or pre-school) participation rates and available infrastructure vary wildly across the country so achieving this goal will be a huge undertaking, particularly in states where existing kindergarten programs are already stretched to the limit.

An added complexity is that each state and territory has its own method of delivering kindergarten programs. In Western Australia, kinder is generally delivered by the state education department at schools, while in Victoria, NSW and Queensland it is additionally delivered by a range of providers including community kinders and long day care centres.

Implementing a single policy across such a patchwork is a complex task. While all states and territories have signed off on the Universal Access commitment, some of them admit they will struggle to deliver.

In Victoria, the Minister for Children and Early Childhood Development, Wendy Lovell, says there is no way Victoria can meet the 2013 deadline without creating chaos in her state’s kindergarten sector.

“The federal government has gone about this the wrong way. Instead of assessing the capacity of the sector first, they’ve made the commitment without fully grasping the lack of infrastructure and the impact the policy will have on existing programs such as three-year-old kinder.”

Lovell is currently negotiating a time extension with the federal government.

“Typically, Victorian children received 10 to 12 hours of 4YO kinder per week, so to increase our programs by up to 50 per cent is a huge ask. Many kinders don’t have room to expand and the cost of purchasing land to build more facilities is prohibitive for many local councils. If we move too quickly we’ll have hundreds of Victorian children missing out on both three- and four-year-old programs.”

Lovell also says rural and regional areas may be negatively impacted by the 15-hours policy because the increase means two communities that currently share a single teacher delivering two 10-hour programs will no longer be able to do so.

Emma King, CEO of Kindergarten Parents Victoria (KPV) says that at 95 per cent, Victoria has one of the country’s highest rates of kindergarten participation and a heavy handed approach to implementing Universal Access will do more harm than good.

“The policy needs to be conscious of the pragmatic nature of organisations. While some services can easily accommodate 15 hours, some definitely can’t. Victoria has a rapidly increasing birth rate and a system that’s already successful so we don’t think we should be penalised.”

King says that, at $210 million over five years, the federal government hasn’t given Victoria enough funding to meet the policy’s requirements. In addition, the reforms to the early years sector have “come all at once” and she wants to see services “set up for success”, not struggling to cope because of unrealistic timelines or the dissolution of valued three-year-old kinder programs because they’ve been squeezed out by the 15-hours for four-year-olds.

King’s sentiments are echoed by president of the AEU, Angelo Gavrielatos.

“Universal Access should not be about robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is incumbent on the Commonwealth, state and territory governments to examine what is really necessary to address the specific barriers in each state and territory, such as infrastructure, and deliver sufficient funding and a realistic timeline to make it possible.”

Meanwhile, in Queensland the state government is trying to pull kindergarten participation rates up from just 29 per cent.

Kim Walters, president of the Queensland-based Early Childhood Teachers’ Association, says while this figure is the average level of participation, in some areas it’s as low as 5 per cent, making the climb to 100 per cent a steep one.

“The state average is improving, but in some areas there might be five schools but only a single kinder. There’s still a long way to go.”

The Queensland government is adamant they will be ready to meet the Universal Access commitment. Minister for Education Cameron Dick said the state is “building a bigger and more highly skilled early childhood workforce and … training and attracting qualified early childhood education workers through vocational education and training, scholarships and a state-wide advertising campaign.”

Queensland’s chief officer at the Office of Early Childhood Education and Care, Annette Whitehead, says participation rates have now reached 40 per cent and the state is on track to build the 240 kindergartens it needs by 2013.

More broadly, there are some concerns about the policy itself and the way funding for its implementation is being distributed.

The professor of early childhood education at Charles Sturt University, Sue Dockett, says stipulating a blanket 15 hours doesn’t allow for individual variation within communities.

“It seems like an arbitrary number which in itself could create challenges. Some families don’t want 15 hours of kinder, and some want more than 15 hours.”

Queensland is one of the few states providing funding to long day care services to assist them to provide 15 hours of kinder delivered by a four-year trained teacher.

Pam Cahir, CEO of Early Childhood Australia, says she is disappointed more isn’t being done to support long day care centres to deliver Universal Access. “Federal funding is not available for kinder teachers in long day care centres, although many kinder-age children would benefit from this.”

Cahir says it’s not simply the input of 15 hours that makes a quality ECEC program, but what is being offered and the outcomes achieved.

The age children start school is already a bone of contention in many parts of the country. Experts such as Walters worry that the Universal Access policy will make it harder for individual families to choose to send a child to school a year later. While many children need an extra year at kinder before they are developmentally ready to begin school, tight funding makes this difficult to achieve.

Walters also says the policy may inadvertently create a division between those who can afford to send their children to a kinder (typically at a cost of about $1000 a year) and those who use childcare to access the 15 hours.

Staffing the reforms

A key feature of the National Quality Framework is the requirement that all ECEC providers employ at least one four-year trained early years teacher, with remaining staff to hold a Certificate III level early childhood education and care qualification or equivalent. Federal and state governments have introduced incentives to attract students to ECEC courses and to encourage existing staff to upgrade their qualifications, yet some argue these strategies are not enough to ensure access for all.

“Wages are very low in childcare centres,” says Walters. “It’s fine for the government to encourage people to increase their qualifications but the difficult thing is getting well qualified staff to stay in settings such as childcare centres, when they will be paid more and enjoy better conditions in a school or stand-alone kindergarten.”

Walters says many childcare centres face a constant staff turnover.

 

“For children to feel safe and secure it’s vital that there be a level of consistency, and this is more likely to be found in a kindergarten where children are with the same group of peers and the same teacher each session and where the staff don’t work shifts or long days.”

Angelo Gavrielatos told Education Review: “In order to attract and retain staff, urgent action is required to address pay and conditions. Until this occurs, valuable staff will continue to choose other career options and the capacity of services to meet the timelines for staffing reform set within the National Quality Framework will be in serious jeopardy.”

Cahir agrees: “You can work as a theatre usher and get paid more than a Certificate III childcare worker.”

“The other challenge is the robustness of teaching, particularly in Certificate III courses. There is lots of evidence in the sector that training is not adequate and we won’t get the outcomes we want for children if we don’t have robustly qualified staff.”

Dockett says many parts of Australia don’t have a four-year trained ECEC teacher.

“In many places there are dedicated people who have lower qualifications. Yes they are being encouraged to upgrade their skills but this may not change their role, status or position. What if they end up leaving the community as a result?”

“I applaud the move to four-year trained teachers, because the quality of teachers impacts on the quality of the programs. Yet we need to provide diverse career paths and opportunities to the ECEC workforce, including those who have been doing a good job in their roles for a while but who don’t want to be four-year trained.”

Dockett says removing the pay and status differences between ECEC staff working in childcare, kindergarten and school settings is important. “No one disagrees that wages and conditions should be the same for everyone but it will cost a lot to achieve this.”

Ratios

More broadly, there is disappointment in many quarters about the new staff/child ratios stipulated within the National Quality Framework. For example, the AEU argues the ratio should be 2:20 in kindergarten, while the framework specifies 1:11. The Early Years Association says they lobbied hard for a 1:3 ratio in babies’ rooms in long day care centres, however 1:4 has been stipulated.

Despite the complexities, the reforms to the ECEC sector are founded on a commitment to providing all Australian children with basic skills for life and learning through engagement in quality early years programs.

Research certainly shows that quality ECEC makes a significant difference to children’s life trajectories. Thus, if levels of government can work co-operatively with Australia’s vast and diverse ECEC sector, the long-term benefits to society will be immense. At the moment though, delivering on promises still seems a long way off.

Read Cathy Wever’s previous report in the series here: (ER, 15.09.11)

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