Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham

Bedrock conducted a Q&A with Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham to find out more about his Government’s policies and attitude to the early childhood sector. Our questions and his answers are below:

1. Can you outline the major changes to the sector proposed in the Jobs for Families childcare package?

The Turnbull Government’s childcare package has a clear goal – to improve Australia’s child care system and to encourage workforce participation.

We are investing around $40 billion in childcare support over the next four years to benefit around one million families, including an increase of more than $3 billion to support the implementation of the package.

The reforms will support parents as they balance work and family, while protecting those most vulnerable, and continuing to ensure a high quality learning experience in our childcare centres. For some, access to childcare can mean the difference between working and not working – more affordable access to quality child care puts the opportunity of work within reach for more families.

The key elements of the package are:

•A new, simpler Child Care Subsidy, which will be better targeted and provide more assistance for low and middle income families.

•The Child Care Safety Net, which will provide targeted assistance to disadvantaged or vulnerable families and children to address barriers in accessing child care, while encouraging parents to enter and return to the workforce, and

• The Nanny Pilot Program for parents who want to work or work more, designed to help eligible families who earn less than $250,000 per annum and are experiencing difficulties accessing mainstream child care.

The Turnbull Government stands by the principle that child care support, heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, must give preference to those who are working, training, studying or volunteering, while being complemented by universal access to preschool education and extensive early education support for disadvantaged children.

2. What is your view on the importance of university qualified teachers in the 0-5 setting?

We know the early years of a child’s life have a profound impact on their future cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. That’s why our goal is to provide the best early learning outcomes and why we have supported improvement in the quality of early childhood and childcare and national consistency in service quality.

The National Quality Framework requires centre based services to have access to an early childhood teacher and larger services must have a university qualified early childhood teacher in attendance. It also requires centre based services to employ an educational leader with a university qualification to lead the development of the curriculum.

3. We understand another review into the sector is to be undertaken. There have been many reviews and investigations into this sector recently – why is a further review necessary?

Reviews and evaluations are important for good policy development. They provide the evidence base for policies and programs.

The new childcare legislation was introduced into the Parliament in December last year and referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 17 March 2016.

Consideration of legislative reforms by Parliamentary Committees is a well established practice to assist the Parliament to assess and understand the proposed legislation.

4. One proposal in the Jobs for Families package is to allow childcare centres to charge parents by the hour rather than a daily fee. This could see fees increase and shut many families out of services. It could also lead to a casualised workforce and therefore impact on quality education and teaching. How do you respond to this?

In simplifying the childcare system, the Turnbull Government will reduce the current regulatory requirements, including the hours per day and days per week a service must open.

Services will only be required to operate for a minimum of 48 weeks per year, or seven weeks per year if the service only provides outside school hours care, with the number of hours per day a matter for the provider to determine. Removing these restrictions will not require any provider or service to change their charging practices or delivery of sessions of care.

While the new legislation will not require services to change their charging practices, I would like to see providers consider how they can maximise the delivery of flexible and cost effective child care and early learning. Some services already offer shorter sessions or casual places where there is demand. Regulatory changes will make these alternatives easier for services to offer.

If alternatives can be provided it is unacceptable that families who only need a few hours of care are charged for 10 or 12 hours.

5. Preschool funding differs from state to state. NSW has the lowest rates of funding per child. Is there anything your government can do to address this inequity?

The Turnbull Government supports the states and territories to increase participation in preschool through the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education (National Partnership).

Since 2008, the Government has provided more than $2.8 billion through a series of National Partnership arrangements. States and territories are responsible for how they use funding to best meet the needs of their jurisdiction. Many states provide free or low cost programs.

I hope that we can ensure considered and uniform application of funding, and opportunities to access preschool can be developed as part of any agreements that go beyond the current Universal Access agreement.

6. The title of this package sounds like the emphasis is on enabling parents to participate in the workforce, rather than providing a quality education for 0-5s. What’s your view on the importance of education for this age group? Does this proposal affect a child’s right to 15 hours of early childhood education per week under the Universal Access Agreement?

Early childhood education is absolutely a focus of the Turnbull Government and is an important consideration in these reforms which will better help nearly one million families to work or work more and also access early education opportunities.

We have also provided $840 million to extend the Universal Access National Partnership which supports children to attend preschool for 15 hours a week, or 600 hours a year, in the year before school, delivered by an early childhood teacher who meets National Quality Framework requirements. This entitlement is additional to any support available under the new Child Care Subsidy.