Child care used to be thought of in pretty basic terms. It was simply a group babysitting service so that parents could go to work. Not anymore. We now know that child care is about so much more than that – that’s why there have been debates, reform and huge new investments in the sector.
So what exactly has changed?
Firstly, a huge body of research now clearly demonstrates that the first five years of a child’s life are the most critical in terms of learning and development. The experiences of a child in these early years will shape their future outcomes.
This is the time when children crave stimulation, are curious about everything and hungry for their knowledge to expand as they grasp the basics of sight, sound, movement and thought. In fact we know that 90 per cent of brain development occurs within the first three years.
I am an absolute believer in the power of education; to ensure that individuals have greater opportunities than those enjoyed by their parents and grandparents, to lift people out of poverty and of course, to ensure we are a smart nation for the future.
All of the evidence shows this power of education is at its height during these early years and we get the best results through giving children access to trained and qualified early childhood staff, who can provide adequate attention and supervision by not having too many kids under their care.
Another thing that has changed is just the sheer size of the early childhood sector.
We now have more children in early childhood care than at any time in Australia’s history. These children are attending care for longer; being enrolled for a far greater number of hours than the generations that have come before them. And we are spending more taxpayer dollars to support their care than at any time before.
All of these facts combine to mean we need to get it right.
Early childhood education and care needs to be of high quality – we know that – and that’s why the Federal Government and every State and Territory Government in the country came together and agreed on National Quality reforms that commenced on the 1st of January.
These reforms will see gradual changes, implemented over a number of years that will improve the quality of care that is provided to kids during those previous early years.
This year, parents who have kids in child care aged between 0 and 2 years will notice there is now one staff member for every four children. This was already the case in a number of states but is now national and I think most would agree that four babies is more than enough for one hard working staff member to manage!
Similar improvements to staff-to-child ratios will come into effect for other age groups over the next few years.
And we’re going to change the qualification requirements so that our amazing, hardworking early childhood staff members are better equipped to lead the activities that help our children learn and develop.
We’re also making sure parents have the information they need to chose the child care centre that works best for their family, with the introduction of a transparent ratings system for child care centres on a number of indicators.
For the first time parents will be able to see a clear assessment of what their centre is doing well at or what requires improvement – a bit like the MySchool website.
Now some have criticised these reforms with arguments that they’ll threaten the affordability of child care.
LET’S JUST BE VERY CLEAR ABOUT THIS!
No Government in the history of this nation has offered more support to Australian families for affordable child care.
The reason our Government increased the child care rebate from 30 to 50 per cent is because we get how important it is that families are supported with child care costs. That’s why we increased the cap on the rebate from the $4354 (as it was under the Federal Liberal Government) to $7500.
We know that families need Government assistance with child care, which is why over the next four years we’re providing over $18 billion of it (almost triple what the Howard Government did in their last four years in office).
Independent expert modelling has confirmed increases in costs will be nothing like the ridiculous figures being touted by some but will in fact be at a national average around $8.67 a week (when you take into account the fact the Government will pick up around half of most parents’ share of any cost increase through the Child Care Rebate) in 2014-15.
There has been a massive 36 per cent increase in the number of approved child care centres since we came to Government just four years ago, including 500 new centres opening in the last year alone. This obviously helps parents’ ability to find care where and when they need it.
There have been huge increases in our Government’s affordability assistance, ensuring the percentage of family income being spent on child care fees has dropped markedly over the last few years.
Surely the quality of care that our kids are receiving is the next piece in the puzzle. Making sure our hard working early childhood staff are supported to do what they do best and have more time for the care and attention they give kids is the next step in our endeavour to offer accessible, affordable, quality child care.
These are important changes.
And you know what? Australian children absolutely deserve them.
Kate Ellis is the Minister for Employment Participation and Minister for Early Childhood and Child Care.
What do you think of the child care changes?
Mamamia is giving you the chance to ask questions specifically of Kate Ellis. She’ll be sitting down next week to answer them – the hard ones and the easy ones – you can either record a short video question which you can email to [email protected] (already uploaded to YouTube) or simply leave your question in the comments and Kate will answer them in a dedicated post next week.