Ask any working parent with a young child and they will tell you that childcare takes up a lot of their thought. If it is not the thought of how much it is costing, it is the thought of how to leave work and make it to the childcare service to pick up our child before any horrendous late fees kick in. And then there is the perennial question of how happy our child is, or our children are, at daycare?
We don’t really know for sure how good a childcare service is given that we only rush in and rush out twice a day. And even if we suspect that it might not be the world’s best childcare centre, what can we really do? Most of us feel lucky to have a place at all given the scarcity of places and the tales we hear of women unable to return to work because they cannot access care.
But parents do need to know if their service gives reasonable care or not. The actual consumers cannot really report back on this one, save for a particular heartrending grab at us as we try and sidle out the door of the service, or a particularly bad temper tantrum on our return. (Though these things can still happen even when the service is excellent.)
It was partially for this reason that all states and territories in Australia and the Commonwealth Government agreed to a nationally consistent ratings and assessment process for childcare services over the last few years. They formally implemented it in 2012. They agreed that every childcare service (or education and care service as
they are now known) would be rated against a National Quality Standard for education and care services.
Services are now rated against seven quality areas such as the extent of their educational program and practice, how well they collaborate with families and how well they look after children’s health and safety. In others words, the basic things that parents have the right to expect. As services are progressively assessed around Australia, parents can now see how their service rates on these seven key areas. They can be rated as exceeding the standard, meeting it or not yet meeting it– working towards it. The system is built around every education and care service working on a Quality Improvement Plan — their roadmap to improvement.
Well that has been the reality, until earlier this week. Earlier this week the assistant education minister, Sussan Ley, declared that the system was a “bureaucratic nightmare”. Her media release promised that “child care operators will get relief from the onerous red tape and regulations Labor has imposed on the sector, in a bid to reduce costs and improve affordability and flexibility”.
But where does this leave parents and their right to know what quality education and care their child care centre will provide? And will it really reduce costs?
The answer to the first question is, well, nowhere, really. And the answer to the second? Unlikely.
Why? Why won’t reducing red tape reduce costs? For one simple reason: a large proportion of early education and child care services are operated on a commercial basis. They are there so that their owners can make money out of providing childcare. Needing to comply with quality standards costs money. And every cent that is spent on meeting quality standards is a cent that is not goingon the profit side of the business ledger.
This is increasingly why support for the assessment and ratings process for early education and care services is becoming fought along an ideological divide between those services that are run for-profit and those that aren’t. Long established not-for-profit providers such as KU Children’s Services and services run by church bodies such as Uniting Care Australia join with organisations such as Goodstart Early Learning (the not-for-profit organisation formed to take over after the large corporate childcare provider ABC Learning went into receivership), in supporting the assessment and ratings process. These organisations have a strong commitment to continually improving the education and care they provide and are acknowledged as providers of high quality care.
It would be unfair and untrue to say that all for-profit providers are opposed to the ratings process, but many of their peak organisations have been vocally campaigning for the changes Assistant Minister Ley is now talking about. And why wouldn’t they? Quality costs money. Quality childcare costs money to provide. And if you are in the game to make money, anything that reduces costs is worth campaigning for. Regardless of what parents, and most importantly their children, may want or need.