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The impact of legislative changes on childcare and early learning in Australia – Overview of Full Paper.

Checkmate Analytics

With the latest ACEQA data showing the request for waivers on the increase as new stricter NQF requirements come into operation, it is possible that the rules set down as a grand vision by the state premiers in 2008 may be just that, a vision that is not achievable logistically or scientifically. The attached review of class size and teacher qualifications research conducted over the last twenty years suggests that the cost benefit of things “nice to have” appear to have little bearing on outcomes in terms of Naplan scores and therefore may be difficult to justify given present budgetary constraints on all governments. Recent government reports indicate that there were no significant differences in Naplan scores between Victorian and NSW Year 3 students despite having equivalent levels of preschool participation but vastly different class size ratios i.e. ten children per staff member in NSW and 15 (50% more) in Victoria.

Although the Productivity Commission’s draft report recommends a number of changes to the way the money is spent, it fails to spell out how the government could save taxpayers’ money. Instead, it tends to focus on how it might arrange it more equitably at a time when numbers like $60 billion in savings are being touted for the USA funding model. In essence it could be argued that the government is asking all those with no children in preschool to fund those parents who do have children in preschool. As a result, any savings will be of benefit to all taxpayers as well as parents and government.

Under the Labor government, funding for childcare doubled in five years with 90% of families receiving a childcare benefit. However, childcare costs rose rapidly during that period. Affordability appears to be seriously challenged while paperwork and regulation continue to expand according to industry representatives. The issue is emotive with some believing that by throwing more money at the problem, things will be better but much of it may be ill-directed and too often reporters are willing to quote spurious studies that are little more than a parent wish list given the best of all possible worlds. In reality legislators are invariably faced with a trade-off between the best and what the nation can afford. This paper uses research evidence to seriously question whether the initial assumptions behind the present class size and teacher qualification mandatories can be supported.

Without government subsidies, out of pockets for families vary from 16% of weekly disposable income for those on $150,000+ to 40% for those families living on $35,000. This is unsustainable. Government subsidies bring this cost down to around 9%-10% of disposable income across the board but rather than looking at whom to penalise, the early learning and childcare program can be far better structured to save a lot of money without impacting the pocketbook of parents or providers.

Under the Howard Government’s National Childcare Accreditation Council, high quality performance ratings for childcare centres rose from 9% in 2003 to 98% in 2008 before slipping back to 87% during the initial years of the Rudd government and further with the arrival of the new standards. Corporate controlled centres as opposed to not for profits and small privately run centres were found to perform least well according to a 2006 study.

With the arrival of the Rudd government in 2008 and Labor premiers in control at a state level, state education departments and their ministers ignored cautionary advice from many leading commentators and seized upon some of the weakest recommendations from the Vinson Report on childcare and early learning which was sponsored by the NSW Teachers Federation and the NSW Parents and Citizens Association. The politicians went  “boots and all” into a push for class size reductions as the best way to improve educational outcomes for early learning despite an evident shift in the debate in the United States at the time as legislators were faced with cost blowouts and no improvement in educational outcomes.

What appeared to be an “effect” from the “gold standard” Tennessee study conducted during the 1980’s in one of the most disadvantaged states in the US, could not be demonstrated consistently anywhere else with the exception of situations of disadvantage or disability.

Over the last six or seven years, the emphasis in the US has been shifting to quality of teaching which the Australian Productivity Commission draft report duly notes. Some US researchers suggest savings may be as high as $60 billion if class size restrictions are loosened and teacher quality pursued.

Data from Australia and elsewhere shows that quality of teaching is not directly related to level of teacher education. Rather, the key appears to be having specialised skills in early learning derived from specialised training. One Australian study found that six month certificate trained practitioners were apparently as effective as degree-qualified practitioners without specific early learning training.

Leading Brookings scholar Russ Whitehurst argued before the US Congress recently that it is not a question of whether the US federal government supports early childhood but how it supports it. He pointed out to Congress that that:

  1. The federal government spends a disproportional amount on early learning programs relative to other levels of education.
  2. It was not getting its money’s worth.
  3. The impact on children of differences in teacher quality is larger than the impact of differences in the centres they attend (code for class size and teacher qualifications).
  4. We should not focus on early learning as the yardstick for measuring the value of public expenditure on children and that learning is not totally determined by “hard” measurement (i.e. socialisation is an important aspect of childcare and early learning).

Several Australian researchers are cautioning about governments becoming mired in measurement-oriented regulation reminiscent of the scientific management theories of the 1950’s and 60’s propounded by the now discredited Frederick Taylor given its emphasis on class size mandatories and form completion. Preschools have been overwhelmed with regulation since the changes made under the Rudd government and they appear to be putting the capacity for a centre to deliver and capacity for parents to pay beyond of both stakeholders. This then places an even greater burden on government to fund the cost of these recent mandatories.

Victorian experience shows that pre-school class sizes of fifteen  4 -5 year olds per staff member (50% larger than NSW) delivered no less an outcome in subsequent Year 3 tests than that achieved in NSW where class sizes were only 10. The cost implications for this difference are massive and the savings by reverting to the Victorian standard prior to these changes would also be massive.

And there are other savings to be made on the basis of the evidence presented in the Wilson paper. Degree trained teachers who did not have a preschool early learning major were shown to deliver poorer Year 3 test outcomes than those specifically trained in preschool learning - whether 2 year diploma or degree level and in many instances, degree trained practitioners were no more effective than certificate trained teachers.

It is worth considering the idea that those with degrees outside of the area of early learning should be required to complete at least a six month certificate and ideally two year diploma in the subject to be confident that they can be effective or equally as effective as those with this background.

It might also be possible that some high quality, highly experienced diploma trained practitioners may lose out to recent university trained graduates with little or no childcare or even general teaching experience should present NQF standards be enforced without regard for the their potential to enable unjustified enforced discrimination.

Whereas more research would provide further confirmation of these conclusions, steps can be taken immediately to cut costs as well as the burden of excessive regulation and its policing. It is possible that the reporting system can simplified to once a week online that can be processed in real time by the relevant educational bodies. Child care practitioners we know appear willing to assist government in the implementation of worthwhile amendments and provide the necessary input to produce realistic cost saving estimates in relation to a reconfiguration of class size and degree qualified quotas.


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