Interview with Lisa Bryant, Consultant for Early education and care sector
Lisa Bryant is a consultant in the early education and care sector. She has written multiple articles on the subject for national media and edits a number of industry publications. Lisa is across all the recent reforms and changes to the laws in Australia. Here, she takes us through them and talks about what might be next for the sector.
In 2012, the laws in Australia changed so that all child care workers now need to hold at least a minimum Certificate III in Early Childhood Education and Care. How do you think that this has impacted the industry?
This came into being after a long period of consultation between the government and the sector and a lot of research about what’s in the best interest of children. The government decided that to improve the quality of child care available to children, so the country as a whole needed to do a few things. The main items on the agenda were to have nationally consistent regulations and laws across Australia and to have a more qualified workforce.
The idea was to have more highly qualified educators working with children. At the same time as the requirements to increase the minimum qualifications came in, other requirements were tabled. These required more early childhood teachers (meaning university qualified teachers) more diploma-qualified staff and to also have a better ratio of educators to children.
These law changes have affected the industry because they mean that it’s now a given that people working in the industry have a slightly higher status and standing in the community. It’s now an industry that’s not “just seen as child care.” It’s seen more correctly as early education and care. And it’s also laid out career paths for educators entering in the industry so that you can go in with a Certificate III and then go on to a diploma. Then if you’re interested, even go on to the university. You’ll get credit for the study that you’ve already done. Now, there’s a career path which wasn’t present before.
Do you think that there will be wage rises down the line for child care workers - and will fees go up?
I think that these two things need to be separated. I don’t think fees have gone up because of the increased qualification needs of educators. Fees have gone up for a whole range of reasons and they will go up in the future.
Parents will have to pay more unless there’s government intervention, but unfortunately I don’t think increased fees will mean any increase in wages in the short term. Under the previous Labor Government, there were moves to increase the wages of child care workers in recognition of their increasing skill levels. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen quickly because it does cost money. At the moment, parents are as stretched as they can be with fees and the government doesn’t seem inclined to put in the money to increase those wages.
You’ve suggested a solution in one of your articles, suggesting that child care facilities should be directly funded by the government.
There’s a key difference between child care or early education and school education. In school education, no school can get government funding if it makes a profit. All schools are not-for-profit, even private schools. They may have very nice premises, but they’re not-for-profit and that’s kind of a good thing for government funding because it means that any surpluses that those organisations make get reinvested into the education of children.
It’s different in child care. It was opened up to the full profit sector and I think as the Productivity Commission found there are some problems with that because fees keep rising. The more government subsidises, the higher fees can go. So there’s a real contradiction with this way of setting things up.
One of the things is that we now know that children learn more in the early years than they do in later years. So, it seems to me that a country that wants to do the best thing by its children would ensure that they got high quality early education.
If we were to change the system where we currently fund parents so that they can choose the child care provider or type of their choice, to funding the actual services, (regardless of whether they’re for-profit or not-for-profit), this would mean that the government could control the prices that they charge and also the quality.
ABC Child Care centres used to be everywhere, owning a quarter of the market. Then they went into receivership. What went wrong and could this happen again?
It went wrong because the corporate child care providers make their money by purchasing small individual child care centres at an inflated value and these organisations keep buying more and more, so it looks like they’re generating a lot of revenue and growing as a company, but it’s all built on a house of cards.
Could it happen again? Yes. And that’s very likely. We now have two corporate providers in Australia. One is G8 and the other is Affinity Education and both of them are following very similar models to what ABC Learning did. They’ll argue, of course, that they’re different, but one of the real issues is that it’s hard to make a lot of money out of child care.
You’ve got to have very high occupancy rates and really tight control over costs. Some of those providers are buying services in areas where they struggle with those occupancy rates. So for a while, they look okay and the market thinks they’re expanding, but then eventually, it will topple over.
In your time speaking with child care workers over the four years since 2012 when the legislation come in, how are they feeling about the industry ? What changes and improvements would they like to see?
Firstly, we now call them educators, they’re no longer child care workers. The main problem that faces educators is the status and standing of their career. Despite the high qualifications – seen as educators. They’re seen as child minders. Sometimes it means that they’re not getting the remuneration that they deserve.
That said, most educators are in the industry because they love children. Some of them have reacted positively to the changes and believe that it’s great that the profession is being professionalised. Things like changes to ratios make working in a child care centre and early education and care centre a lot easier.
So some educators are feeling pressured by some of the requirements of the new regulations and the fact that it came in at the same time as the new curriculum came in, the Early Years Learning Framework can make it harder for people to get their heads around the new regulations and a new curriculum at the same time.
Lisa, if you were Prime Minister for a week and you could make one significant change to the state of the industry, what would you do?
I would implement a system very similar to the system implemented in Finland so that every child is guaranteed a place in an early education and care centre, from six months. I would make local governments responsible for the supply of those places and I would provide the funding to local governments to enable them to either fund community organisations to provide them or establish those places themselves.
I would also take away the right of any for-profit operator to receive government funding so that I would essentially make it a community-owned situation. I would also ensure that the qualifications went even higher so that there were more university-qualified early childhood teachers in every service, including educators with Masters degrees. Early education is important and we need to have the best educators delivering it.