The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care

The legislative arrangements for the introduction of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care (NQF), which is to be phased in from 2012 to 2020, are almost complete. The Education and Care Services National Regulations, under the Education and Care Services National Law Act 2010, were made by the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs on 9 December 2011. Western Australia is the only jurisdiction left to pass the National Law Act.
The NQF was agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) through the National Partnership Agreement on the National Quality Agenda for Early Childhood Education and Care. It will create a national system of regulation, quality assurance and standards for the early childhood education and child care (ECEC) sector, replacing the previous state and territory systems.
Through the National Partnership, the Australian Government is providing $61.27 million to the states and territories from 2010–11 to 2013–­14 to support the NQF’s implementation. The implementation arrangements for the NQF are available on the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) website. ACECQA is the new national body responsible for overseeing the ECEC reforms.
Aspects of the NQF reforms have raised concerns, particularly the new educator (formerly known as ‘carer’ or similar)-to-child ratios, education requirements for ECEC workers, and the implementation schedule, which the Productivity Commission (PC) in its research report on the early childhood development workforce, considers ‘optimistic’. There are fears that these elements of the NQF may create untenable demands on ECEC services, affecting the viability of services and resulting in unsustainable costs for families. There have been reports that: ECEC services may cut places and programs to meet the NQF requirements and curtail costs, services are increasing fees (see newspaper report of the results of a survey by Childcare Alliance Australia), and some centres are closing in anticipation of the NQF.
The first phase of the NQF (from 1 January 2012) will see the implementation of an educator-to-child ratio of 1:4 for children aged from birth to two years in centre-based services. This ratio was already in place  in all states and territories, except for South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT, before the introduction of the NQF (see comments by ACECQA's Deputy Chair, as quoted in an article in The Australian). As a transitional measure, some states and territories (as itemised in Chapter 7 of the National Regulations) have negotiated alternative arrangements, including different educator-to-child ratios for older children.
The NQF reforms that are likely to have a great impact are those requiring higher qualified staff and the employment of preschool teachers. The PC has reported that about 30 per cent of ECEC educators hold certificate-level qualifications and 43 per cent hold no post high school qualifications. The NQF is requiring that by 1 January 2014, 50 per cent of educators in a centre-based service have (or are actively working towards) a Diploma level education and care qualification or above and that other educators have (or are actively working towards) a Certificate III level qualification. The requirements for access to an early childhood teacher, which will support COAG’s commitment to access to an early childhood education program for all children in the year before formal schooling, are also to be phased in from 1 January 2014.
The Minister for Child Care, Kate Ellis, acknowledged the burden the training requirements might place on the ECEC sector and on long-standing ECEC workers who lack formal qualifications. As a result, those centre-based workers who have been employed continuously in an ECEC service for 15 years or more, or who were employed by the same ECEC provider immediately before the implementation date, are exempt from the requirement for formal qualifications (see section 240 of the National Regulations).
The Australian Government’s interim response to the PC’s report outlines the measures it has put in place to support the training of the ECEC workforce. These include funding for the removal of TAFE fees for child care qualifications, additional university places for early childhood teachers, and reducing the HECS-HELP debt of early childhood teachers who work in disadvantaged areas, including regional and remote areas. The Government also announced in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2011–12 (MYEFO) that it is providing $5 million in 2011–12 for one-off grants to assist about 1000 long day care centres with the implementation of the NQF. These grants can be used to support staff training and to fund casual employees to fill in for staff undertaking training.
There is consensus that the NQF reforms will increase costs as the sector faces demands to increase wages to attract and retain better qualified staff and meets costs associated with other NQF reforms, including, for example, the new ratings and assessment system. Consequently, child care fees will also rise. The Australian Government has responded by increasing its budget for child care fee assistance, (provided by the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate). Most recently, MYEFO increased the forward estimates for child care fee assistance which is now expected to increase by $100 million in 2011–12 and by $1.4 billion over four years, although the Government expects this ‘in part’ to reflect a higher than anticipated growth in demand.
Predictions about the size of child care fee increases vary. In 2010, out-of pocket expenses after child care subsidies for one child in long day care, as a proportion of weekly disposable income, ranged from 6.8 per cent to 7.3 per cent, depending on gross annual family income (Report on Government Services 2011, Table 3A.43). The PC predicts that the NQF reforms could see these costs rise by more than 15 per cent, resulting in some families, particularly middle to lower income families, withdrawing their children from ECEC services, in turn affecting parents’ workforce participation.
The Government, in its interim response to the PC’s report, disputes the PC’s prediction, maintaining that the increased costs will be ‘modest’. In a speech to Australian Community Children’s Services, Peter Garrett, the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, quoted an out-of-pocket cost of about $8 to $9 per week for full-time long day care in 2014–15. This amount is based on modelling presented in the Regulation Impact Statement for Early Childhood Education and Care Quality Reforms (RIS) and refers to the estimates for the out-of-pocket costs for one child in long day care for families on an annual income of $80 000. For two children, the RIS predicted estimated out-of-pocket costs per week of just over $17 per week.
The value of quality early childhood education and care, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, is undisputed and supported by an abundance of research. Improved standards for early childhood education and care have therefore been widely welcomed. However, in spite of the NQF’s merits and the concessions that have been made, the tension between improved quality and services and increased costs is likely to make the NQF’s implementation difficult.

Updated 6 January 2012.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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