Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been working hard to understand the issues for members, families and children and provide effective advocacy and representation. As we face the second half of 2020, it might also be valuable for our members to understand the ‘view from here’ at ECA. What has guided our decision-making and advocacy during the pandemic? And what threats and opportunities do we see for young children and their education and care services over the months ahead?’
Australians have shown an extraordinary ability to pull together over the last few months and to put common interest above self interest. Nowhere is this more evident than in the courage and commitment of early childhood professionals who have continued working with children and families every day, providing rich, play-based learning and nurturing environments. This is despite uncertainties and natural anxieties about your own and your families’ health, despite extra demands at work and at home as well as the additional pressures of job and financial insecurity in a highly uncertain time.
Thank you for your professionalism and commitment to children. Finally recognised as ‘essential workers’; you have demonstrated your central role in the social and economic fabric of Australian society.
We know that many in the early childhood sector are anticipating that the return to the Child Care Subsidy (CCS) in four weeks’ time will bring a degree of certainty and normalcy. Others were hoping for an extension of relief payments and/or a complete overhaul of the subsidy system.
We have seen developments in media coverage and welcome reporting that has tried to come to grips with the range of difficulties. It is tempting for all of us whether advocates, journalists, policy-makers or politicians as well as educators, leaders and families to go for our own view or the majority view. But ECA’s role is to understand the multiplicity of perspectives and the complexities of the issues in order to facilitate dialogue and have a positive influence on policy decisions.
There are calls across the media and across kitchen tables for free ‘child care’ and many stories about the hardships faced to a greater degree by some groups in the community than others: by disadvantaged children and families, low income households, young people, older and health-compromised people and women in particular who have lost hours, jobs and taken on home-schooling and care for vulnerable family and friends at a greater rate than non-women—the ‘she-cession’ as some journalists have labelled it.
Unfortunately the signs are that as a community and in our businesses, workplaces, education and personal lives, we still have a rough path ahead of us. That what lies ahead might be more intense than anything we have experienced so far and our sector will be at the forefront of the impacts that will shake the Australian community for months, possibly years, to come.
The PM announced on Thursday 18 June a sharp rise in unemployment with further huge job losses predicted in coming months—the impact has been particularly harsh on women who have experienced an increase in unpaid work and a decrease in paid work, with many forced out of the labour market altogether. Household income is nose-diving and this means that regardless of transition packages or returns to CCS, regardless of ‘best efforts’ by anyone in political leadership, many families will be out of work, or on reduced hours. Their children will not be returning to take up their place in your early learning or outside school hours service. (Reserve Bank of Australia, June 2020; Mitchell Institute Report, 2020).
Our focus at ECA, is always the best interests of children and their right to a quality early education experience provided by engaged, qualified professionals adequately supported by capable service leaders working within an evidence-based quality framework. We believe every child deserves the benefit of your expertise and a high quality early learning experience, wherever they live, whatever their family of origin, regardless of their parent’s workforce participation or capacity to pay.
ECA works with governments, ministers and politicians of every philosophy. It’s the nature of our advocacy work that we keep speaking to all governments about the children and families and the services and educators who will miss out even where some families, services and educators may be better off.
Policy work is complex, there are a myriad of alternative ways to achieve a desired outcome but many have unintended negative consequences or become almost impossible to deliver when you understand the legislative and practical constraints. Then there is the difficulty of modelling costs and predicting the decisions that families are likely to make.
ECA’s membership and followers and the early childhood sector itself are a diverse, complex and nuanced group. There is not just one view or perspective across the diversity of service types, geographic locations, professional or community networks you belong to. There will be differing views and conflicting opinions; there are also powerful vested interests vying for influence. We need to stay focused on our role which is to be a courageous voice for children, informed by the educators and organisations working directly with them and their families.
If every child is to thrive and learn, we must keep raising issues, identifying and giving voice to concerns. It is our job to appraise the relative benefits of multiple policy options to assess the complex, the difficult, the hidden and overlooked. It makes us variously popular and unpopular with governments, groups and individuals whose own interests lie in particular directions.
We often hear ‘we are all in this together’. There is certainly no escaping the upheaval that COVID-19 has brought. We are stronger when we stand together and support each other. But this does not always mean agreeing on everything or speaking with a single voice. We are stronger together and when we listen and understand each other’s circumstances, we offer the kind of respect and restraint that marks our professional practice with families and young children.
Despite our differences and how the future will affect us differently, there are some ideas and actions that we can unequivocally agree on:
- Young children’s best interests matter as does each child’s right to safe, nurturing learning experiences from birth; and access to high quality professionally-provided and well-regulated early childhood education. This is what underpins our focus and is at the centre of all that we do and strive for in the early childhood education and care sector.
- Women’s workforce participation also matters and in a highly female sector we have been aghast to see how society’s shared commitment to equity, closing the gender gap in employment, to fair conditions and remuneration, and respect for professionalism can so easily unravel.
- Quality matters too. Calls for new forms of funding or dismantling what we have which have arisen in the last months—including calls for NDIS style funding or slashing ‘red tape’ or cutting costs by removing overlook the unique and very real benefits of Australia’s ECEC system. We can and must provide quality early learning for every child and affordable child care for workforce participation but we can do it without compromising on quality or educator wages.
An early childhood sector that supports children’s early learning and supports women’s workforce participation and family life and livelihoods is what we aim to see. It needs to be fully supported by governments not achieved at the expense of the mostly female early childhood education workforce.
Be wary of calls to ‘fast-track’ or ‘slash red tape’. One person’s red tape is a child’s guaranteed access to quality early learning experiences with professionally trained, skilled and nurturing educators.
We believe these are difficult times for anyone in leadership and government. We commit ourselves to continue seeking common ground where possible and advocate better options where we must. We welcome the outpouring of community spirit and cooperation among agencies, governments and individuals to get Australia through this difficult time. And we are particularly pleased to see the efforts that some political and social affairs journalist have gone to, to inform themselves of the issues, to seek out real people and stories and to crunch the numbers. ECA can’t put down the advocacy tools now: it would be dangerous to say that ‘near enough is good enough’. So thank you for supporting us and for telling us where our views differ from your experiences and perspective. We want you to keep doing that.
Noble, K, Hurley, P & Macklin, S, (Mitchell Institute Report, June 2020) COVID-19, employment stress and student vulnerability in Australia. Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy, Victoria University. Retrieved 23 June 2020 from https://www.vu.edu.au/sites/default/files/COVID-19%20employment%20stress%20and%20child%20vulnerability.pdf
Reserve Bank of Australia,(June 2020) Statement on Monetary Policy–May 2020: Economic outlook. Retrieved 23 June 2020 fromhttps://www.rba.gov.au/publications/smp/2020/may/economic-outlook.html.
Grattan Institute, (April 2020), Shutdown: Estimating the COVID-19 employment shock. Retrieved, 23 June 2020 from https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Shutdown-estimating-the-COVID-19-employment-shock-Grattan-Institute.pdf
ABC Radio National interview with Patricia Karvelas and Samantha Page, CEO of ECA, www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/drive/free-childcare-scheme-to-end-in-july/12333096
The RiotACT, 9 June 2020, Fears end of free childcare could push families out of care and cost sector jobs, retrieved 19 June 2020 from https://the-riotact.com/fears-end-of-free-childcare-could-push-families-out-of-care-and-cost-sector-jobs/381276
Women’s Agenda, June 2020, Why do we have a ‘she-cession’, but a ‘bloke-covery’?’, retrieved on 17 June 2020 from https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/why-do-we-have-a-she-cession-but-a-bloke-covery/
ECA’s Early Learning Matters Week 3-7 August 2020 is a wonderful celebration of what matters—bringing community together to better understand the inner life and development of children and what goes on in early learning settings to support them. We hope you will join us for a different way of celebrating Early Learning Matters Week this year. Please save the dates 3-7 August 2020 and click here to subscribe to WebWatch, ECA’s free electronic newsletter and receive latest updates.