Key Note Address to the Child Care Queensland 2011 National Conference, Caloundra, Queensland

Speech
  • Minister for Employment Participation
  • Minister for Child Care

Check against delivery.

Thank you for welcoming me here today to this important Conference.

I would like to begin by thanking Childcare Queensland and Gwynn Bridge for organising this conference and to acknowledge their ongoing work with the early childhood education and care sector in the state.

Responding to Queensland’s natural disasters

I would also like to acknowledge that it has been a really tough year here in Queensland.

The sheer scale of the flooding and cyclone damage that affected the people of Queensland and their homes and businesses touched hearts right across the country.

As you know, three quarters of Queensland was declared a disaster zone by the State Government. The child care sector was no exception, with many centres inundated and other services disrupted for weeks on end.

Yet amidst the wreckage there were also some truly heart-warming stories of courage and generosity.

On the days when the flood waters were at their highest, there were several cases of parents being prevented from collecting their children from care because of localised flooding.

One such case was at long day care centre in Withcott that became completely isolated by floodwaters overnight. On that evening staff members went above and beyond the normal call of duty, caring for five very anxious and scared little children through the night.

And there are many more stories of the courage, hard work and dedication displayed by early childhood educators and carers during this difficult period.

I was proud to be able to tell some of those stories to the nation’s Parliament in Canberra; some were of course reported in the media but I know that there were many, many more stories of unsung heroes that have not been told and I want to acknowledge those people today.

During the period of flood and cyclones, our Government stood side by side with the Queensland Government, working to ensure we got Queenslanders through the tough time. We allocated more than $25 million in extra funding to help our child care centres and their parents and children cope during this period. And we stand ready to assist in the rebuilding that still lies ahead.

Importance of Child Care

The Australian Government recognises the critical importance of early education and care to families.

We know that access to quality and affordable child care is an essential enabler of workforce participation – particularly for women.

We know that the first five years of a child’s life are critical and that their experiences during this time will shape their future outcomes. Through high quality early education and care we have the ability to ensure that our youngest citizens get the great start in life that they deserve.

And we also know that families’ demand for child care continues to grow.

Between September 2005 and September 2010, around 106 000 more children – or 78 000 families – have been using approved child care. The number of approved long day care child care services has also increased by more than 1100 over this period.

And with more and more Australian families choosing for both parents to work, our children’s early experiences are being increasingly influenced by you and your colleagues.

This is why our Government has driven an ambitious reform agenda to improve access to quality, affordable care – an agenda that we have backed up by a record investment of $20 billion over the next four years.

Our Government’s record on affordability

Specifically, we are providing $16.4 billion over the next four years to help Australian families with the cost of child care, through Child Care Benefit and the Child Care Rebate. To put this investment in context – it is more than double that which was provided in the last four years of the Howard Government.

We have raised the Child Care Rebate from 30 to 50 per cent of parents’ out-of-pocket expenses and increased the maximum for each child in care to $7500 per year. This means an additional $120 million in child care assistance going into the hands of Queensland families each year.

In a few short weeks, families will receive even greater relief with the option to have their Child Care Rebate paid fortnightly – and in many cases weekly. Importantly, families will also have the option to receive the rebate via their child care service, by way of a weekly or fortnightly reduction. This means that parents can get their financial assistance from the Government at the time they’re getting their bills each week, making it easier to balance the family budget.

Families have never had more assistance with their child care fees, and they have never before had more choice, than under the Gillard Labor Government.

We know this increased assistance is having a real impact for Australian families.

In fact since 2004, out-of-pocket costs for families earning $75 000 have reduced from 13 per cent of their disposable income to 7 per cent in 2010.

Why quality matters

Of course – cost is only one part of the equation.

Our investments in improving the affordability of child care must also come hand in hand with an improvement in quality.

Through our reforms, we will have, for the first time, nationally consistent educator-to-child ratios and educator qualification requirements in long day care, family day care, outside school hours care and preschool care. As you know, these reforms will

  • improve educator to child ratios so that each child gets more individual time and attention
  • introduce educator qualification requirements so educators are better able to lead activities that inspire youngsters and help them learn and develop
  • include a new ratings system so parents know the quality of care on offer and can make informed choices, and
  • reduce regulation burden so services only have to deal with one regulator.

On top of our child care assistance funding, the Australian Government is investing $273.7 million investment towards these objectives.

All Governments remain firmly committed to these reforms and I am pleased to report that significant progress has already been made.

We know there are many services across the country are already meeting the National Quality Framework targets when it comes to both qualifications and ratios. In January this year, we also saw the successful roll out of the NSW Government’s ratio change to 1:4 for zero to twos with minimal impact on fees.

I am well aware of arguments about costs.

But the reality is that there are child care centres that have already implemented the new staff-to-child ratios and their costs are consistent with other local providers.

For example, take the Clarendon Children’s Centre in inner-city Melbourne. They meet every single one of the new ratio requirements and all but one staff member meets the new qualification requirements. Their fees are around $77 per day – which is about the same as most centres in the area.

I want to reiterate COAG did not take these decisions lightly.

We have consulted extensively with the sector and with families, through both the Regulation Impact Statement process and ongoing face to face consultations.

We commissioned completely independent economic modelling from Access Economics that found the average out-of-pocket cost increase for a family on $80 000 would be $8.67 per week by 2014–15 for one child who attends full time long day care.

Our Government stands by this modelling.

These reforms are not the result of rushed decision making and they are not the result of a thought bubble.

They come after considerable consultation, extensive debate, significant lobbying from all sides of the arguments and a comprehensive policy development process.

Some have urged us to be bolder in the reforms - to move immediately to a national ratio of 1:3 for children under two years of age, for example.

Others have wanted us to move more quickly and speed up the timeframe for implementation.

We believe we have got the balance right.

The framework is an evolving idea and one that requires continual improvement and I hope to work in partnership with you to keep that improvement happening.

I have developed a robust relationship with Gwynn over the years and I can assure you she is representing your views in this ongoing dialogue.

I look forward to continuing this conversation, so that we can achieve the best possible outcome for Australia’s children.

Officers from my department will run two sessions on the National Quality Framework tomorrow and I would encourage you to attend one or both of these sessions.

We want to hear your contribution and make sure you have the information that you need to know about what is happening next in the reform process.

A professional workforce

Of course once the National Quality Framework is in place - it all comes down to people. Especially as the framework requires greater numbers of highly trained education and care professionals.

Words alone don’t nurture children: caring parents, kindergarten teachers and educators – the people in this room – are the ones that do that.

While workforce issues fall into Minister Garrett’s portfolio responsibilities, I know he would want me to assure you that the Australian Government had heard your calls for more support for the early childhood workforce.

That is why as part of the 2011-12 Budget we announced $9.2 million for a Recognition of Prior Learning package to improve the quality and uptake of RPL assessments for early childhood professionals.

This will directly assist child care staff who have long and valuable experience working in the sector, to gain a formal qualification.

It builds on previous measures that are helping build a new early childhood education and care workforce by creating new university places, reducing HECS-HELP repayments, and removing TAFE fees for people who want to make early childhood development their career.

The early data indicates that these measures are succeeding, with numbers of people studying for diplomas, advanced diplomas and degrees in child care increasingly significantly since 2008.

We value the work that child care staff do.

We know that child care is about more than just baby-sitting – that it is about educating in those critical early years.

The IPSP review

No one can deny that the Australian Government’s reform agenda has been an ambitious one.

There is another crucial requirement for all this investment in child care in Australia - we have to ensure that every family who wants to can access it.

Every Australian child is valued equally and our early childhood development services must meet their needs whether they live in leafy suburbs, remote communities or public housing estates alike. Regardless of whether they have disability or learning difficulties, whether they are from a disadvantaged background, are new migrants or refugees.

I would now like to turn to the future of one of our most important programs – the Inclusion and Professional Support Program.

As most of you would be aware this program provides child care services and individual educators with access to professional support, training and development opportunities.

It also supports child care services to provide an inclusive environment for children from a range of backgrounds - such as Indigenous children, children with disability, children from culturally and linguistically diverse families and refugee children.

Over 5000 child care services each year access the Inclusion Support Subsidy to support the inclusion of children with disability, and children from humanitarian refugee backgrounds.

This subsidy provides a contribution to the cost of employing an additional educator to support these children with high ongoing needs.

I know that many of you find value in this program but we have heard from you and others that there are improvements that can and should be made.

As some of you would be aware, from October we will be simplifying the process for applying for the Inclusion Support Subsidy.

Most child care services will be able to apply for the ISS through a new governmental portal. They will then be able to claim ISS payments via the attendance data they already submit to the Child Care Management System for Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate purposes.

This means that instead of having to wait for three months for payment, services will be able to claim ISS when they submit CCB attendance records, either weekly or fortnightly.

Services will also find it easier to re-apply for ISS as they will be able to copy the previous application and make any necessary amendments, rather than having to go through the process of creating a whole new application each time.

This will significantly reduce red tape in applying for the ISS, meaning you can spend more time on doing the job you do best: caring for children.

However, we know there is more work to do.

That is why I believe that we should look at these issues, to look for your input and feedback and deliver practical changes that can be made right now.

To this end, I am today launching a discussion paper seeking your views on how we can make the Inclusion and Professional Support Program work better for both disadvantaged children and the professional services that care for them.

Can its measures be better targeted? Can red tape be slashed further? How can we measure its progress?

These are just some of the questions I want to seek your advice on.

I want to hear your ideas and your advice from on the ground experience and I can commit that we will work to incorporate your views to create a program that better meets both your needs and the needs of children.

While I can’t promise significant new funding, I believe there are practical changes that we can and should make with this program, to ensure it better meets your needs and the needs of the children you care for.

Conclusion

Let us continue to work together to give Australia the early childhood development services it needs and can’t afford to do without.

We need to look to the future – to the practical changes we can keep making together to help give children their best possible start in life.

This is what Australian parents expect of us. And this is what we will deliver.

[ENDS]

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