Michelle Lensink

Education And Early Childhood Services (Registration And Standards) Bill

This speech is in relation to the Education And Early Childhood Services (Registration And Standards) Bill.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (16:03): I rise to make some remarks on this particular piece of legislation which has had several years' gestation, and was one which I took a much closer interest in several years ago when I had the early childhood development portfolio prior to the last election.

Until now, the area of early childhood development has been governed by the Children's Services Act 1985 which regulates babysitting agencies, childcare centres, children's services centres (which are kindergartens, which have a particularly strong history in South Australia), not-for-profit childcare centres, family day care, preschool, and education for those aged six and under. The purpose of that act is to ensure the provision of preschool education, proper care and development of every child. The Children's Services office is responsible for the oversight, and also included in the regime is approved family day care and licensed family day care for no more than four children.

I had a briefing in May 2009 with the department and was advised, at that stage, that lots of changes were underway and that there were a lot of opportunities because commonwealth funding was being made available under a national partnership. There was also discussion of universal access for preschoolers, additional training and requirements for a specific number of hours per week, the national qualified standards framework, national accreditation, which was being driven by COAG, and something called the Early Years Learning Framework. This bill is a culmination of some of those changes, and it will also modernise some of the acts under which the regimes are currently regulated. So, the bill makes significant changes to governance and regulation of early childhood services.

I will talk about this more in detail later in my speech, but I think that it is a shame that the significant details have been released, through the federal government regulations, at the last minute and took place only very, very recently. As we know, with these things the devil is always in the detail. There was a discussion paper in 2008, a draft bill in 2009, and the COAG agenda has been underway through MCEETYA, which is the relevant ministerial council. What we have before us implements the national quality framework. It has broad support, with a few changes, which I intend to flag, to the legislation.

It is a new national system of provider approvals with a national body to oversee standards. It contains details about more concentrated child-to-staff ratios and qualification requirements for staff. The type of approach, in the legislative sense, is to adopt a national law, which is a matter which particularly concerns members on this side of the house and which my colleague the Hon. Stephen Wade will comment on in his contribution.

There has been a lot of talk in relation to these changes about improving quality standards in child care and the importance of the early years to a child's learning and development, which nobody disputes. I hope that, in reaching this agenda, governments and regulators have not forgotten to appreciate what is good about what we already have in our system, particularly for those workers who may not have the qualifications but certainly are effective workers. In that nexus, we can see that there are the early childhood educators, or early childhood teachers (ECTs), who have university degrees, and I understand that that is a fairly new qualification. They have a number of skills in determining what, for instance, constructive play may be beneficial for children at a certain age versus a number of existing workers who do not have formal qualifications but certainly have plenty of experience with small children and plenty of empathy. I believe that it is a shame that a number of those workers have not been grandfathered through those provisions.

Childhood SA, which has been very active since the regulations were released, has put it this way, and I quote from the letter to members of the Legislative Council:

The new laws and regulations will require a higher ratio of staff to children and the number of university and diploma qualified staff required in childcare centres. However, finding and retaining qualified staff is already a challenge and it is our understanding that the TAFE system will be unprepared for the influx of new enrolments that will be legally required from January. Childcare centres have been operating successfully, providing high quality outcomes for years at the existing staff ratios. The staff ratio is something that will be changed. I think we differ from the government on the timing of those particular implementations.

The recent debate, which has been driven by the release of the regulations, has focused a lot on costs, and the question still remains: who will pay? I have heard both the state minister and the federal minister talk about an average of $8 a week, but that being an average, there willobviously be some who will pay a lot more and others who will pay less. I put on the record that the industry strongly disputes those figures, particularly with future wage increases and associated employee on-costs, such that it calculates that it is more like $13 to $22 a week, or a 15 to 20 per cent increase, and potentially up to $1,000 a year.

The industry argues that those who will be hit hardest are those whose children attend low-cost centres, many of which have children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The president of that particular association says that 20 per cent of his parents are single mothers. The Labor Party loves to use that title of 'working families', but working families are the ones who may be the most disadvantaged by this in that they are not able to afford to continue to pay. I note that the City of Playford service is being tendered out in anticipation.

The final regulations, as I mentioned, were released very late (in late October; a week ago), for implementation on 1 January of next year. Last week, centres realised how monumental the task to implement the changes was, so they have sought delays to the implementation date. I would also note, for the conventions of this Legislative Council, that a bill is supposed to sit on the Notice Paper for a full week. This particular bill was tabled on 19 October, which was the Wednesday of last sitting week, so that convention has been broken in relation to bringing this bill on.

Also, while I am going to have a crack at the Weatherill government's poor attitude to due process in this place, I would like to add, for the record, that I have not even been offered a briefing on this bill. However, given that I have some experience in the matter I have taken it upon myself, in the last couple of business days, to read about it quite extensively, which is why I am happy to proceed to the debate. No thanks to the government, thank you very much. The minister made the following comment in this place when he tabled the bill on 19 October:

...all stakeholders have been invited to provide advice relating to the matters which will fall within the scope of subordinate legislation...

That is, the regulations. He further states:

The regulations which will be made under the National Law are currently being finalised following extensive national consultations.

That was on 19 October, and this critical part of the regime, which the industry provided input to the government, was still finalising in the middle of last month. There have been multiple changes along the way and industry has been waiting with bated breath for the final version. I think it is fair to say that, metaphorically, it dropped its jaw last week when the regulations were released. If we bear in mind that it is not just the proprietors themselves who will need to understand the regulations come 1 January 2012, but all of their staff, including those who have not even been recruited yet.

I will again quote from the Childcare SA letter to us of last week, which states:

The new regulations are to be implemented within weeks in January 2012 but there has been inadequate consultation. There is no indication that the Federal Government or the State Government will be providing additional funding for fee relief through the childcare rebate, the childcare benefit or any other form. There should be at least a delay on implementation to allow more time for us to adjust. If these changes are implemented immediately, many childcare centres will be under pressure to keep their doors open, only adding to already long waiting lists across the state.

I met with the industry on Friday and was informed that the first briefings offered on those regulations were as recent as 31 October, which was just a week ago. Given that penalties and sanctions will apply for noncompliance, I do not think that is acceptable. The sector also met with the minister on the same day and commitments were made by her, but I understand that those commitments are not to be dealt with through amendments to the legislation, but through the ministerial council. I indicate for the record that we will be seeking to embed some of those commitments into amendments to this piece of legislation.

The regulations in question are some 340 pages, and the relevant sections which industry is concerned about are part 4.4, which relates to the staffing arrangements, and part 7.6A, which are the South Australian-specific provisions. I will not read those into the record. I am sure that members will avail themselves of those if they wish to. There are three main principles that we are seeking to embed into this legislation. The first is that all of the key time lines relating to staff ratios and qualifications in the bill will be pushed back by two years, to commence from 1 January 2014.
The second issue relates to children aged from 24 to 36 months. I understand there was a commitment given by the minister that those would be further staggered and we will have amendments to that effect.

The final policy matter is that ratio requirements for qualified staff who are 'on floor' should not be affected when they are on tea and lunch breaks, such that, if one of the staff happens to be in the toilet or in the tearoom, they will continue to be able to be quoted for those ratios. I advise that the Liberal Party has consulted with the Victorian government (the lead legislator), which has no objections to our amendments. We also have advice that Queensland has delayed a number of provisions and that other jurisdictions are looking to follow suit.

I have some questions to which I would appreciate replies, and I will now read them onto the record. Which universities in South Australia are offering the early childhood development degree? For how long has the course been running, and when was the first set of graduates? How many graduates complete the course each year and how many will be registered to work from 1 January 2012? The industry says that 3,500 early childhood teachers will be required statewide, although that may actually be all new staffing requirements across the sector. My question is: can the government confirm whether that number is correct and, if not, what is its calculation? Will the government provide greater access to public funding to all centres, not just its own but the independent Catholic and private sectors?

In the letter to MLCs—which I assume the government has; I am happy to give it mine, if it does not—industry says in relation to the 1 January 2012 implementation that:

No additional funding for fee relief has been offered through the childcare rebate, the childcare benefit or any other form. Is this correct? Will the education department provide funding to pay for the new ECT requirement? If so, will all sectors—private/independent, Catholic and government—be included and, if not, why not? With those remarks, I indicate that we will support the bill.

I have some amendments, and I apologise that I have not been able to get them tabled as yet, but all of this took place very late in the piece. I think it would be beneficial if we did not proceed to committee stage until honourable members have had the opportunity to at least examine our amendments to consider whether they wish to support them or not. So, I look forward to the committee stage; hopefully, not today.

 

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