Education and Early Childhood Services (Registration and Standards) Bill

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 8 November 2011.)

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT (11:23): I rise today to support the second reading of the Education and Early Childhood Services (Registration and Standards) Bill 2011 in its current unamended form. As a Dignity for Disability MLC, I believe that effective early childhood education is essential and, indeed, a basic right in modern functional society. This bill is far-reaching and, on some levels, groundbreaking in its scope and its impact.

I believe that there are many positive features and welcome innovations that acknowledge the importance of early support, intervention and structured play for the education of our children. I believe that early childhood education and care provided by qualified workers and educators is undervalued in our society, and any reforms that seek to increase the recognition, conditions and qualifications can only be a positive measure.

There has been much talk in the recent week of the resources boom in this state following the government’s ratified agreement with BHP Billiton on the Olympic Dam mine expansion. What I would hope is not forgotten is that the most important resource in this state is not actually a mineral we dig out of the ground but our people and our children. Our children are the future and early investment must be made in ensuring that they have a good start in life and are able to go on to lead meaningful lives in the future. As a politician elected to this place on a disability platform, I always consider the 20 per cent of our population who have a disability and how legislation created in this chamber impacts on them.

There is no time more important for a child with a disability than their early years. Every piece of research available points to early diagnosis and early intervention as being the most desirable outcome for a child’s long-term development. The better the child-staff ratio for a child, the more chance that this can occur. The better educated and qualified in child education and development the staff are, the more chance that they can assist a child with a disability. From a disability perspective, the reforms contained in this bill amount to the absolute minimum we want to see occurring if we want to support our children, particularly our children with extra needs.

As we all know, being an adult with a disability is by no means an easy path through life, but being a child with a disability is particularly challenging. Imagine being a child with autism, for example. There is the sensory stimuli overload that this entails, the difficulty of relating to other people and the challenges with communication and language. It is hard enough to learn to interact with your peers at two years of age without adding this additional test to the equation.

Imagine your early educator being so overloaded with maintaining the needs of too many children that they do not notice that this is why you are withdrawn. It is not a pleasing scenario. Significant damage can be done to a child with autism if he or she is not diagnosed early and an adequate intervention program is not put in place. With the right support put in place initially, a child with autism can flourish. They can develop good language and communication skills; they can learn to socially interact in an appropriate manner; and they can even continue into mainstream schooling, with all the opportunities that this can mean for any child leading into their adult life.

Sure, there will be adverse events, challenges and failings along the way, but it is a far more preferable situation than the alternative of no diagnosis, no intervention and no resource support. Without early diagnosis and support, this same child could be seen by educators as immature, failing to thrive and badly behaved. By the time the child starts school at age five, they will be struggling to handle both the social and the intellectual demands placed on them in that environment. By the time they enter high school, they will probably have experienced harassment from their peers and they will often be friendless.

A child or young adult who has had inadequate support in their early years due to a disability is more likely to experience mental illness, have inadequate coping skills, and is probably on the way to being jobless. Our justice institutions, education options, training programs and mental health systems are ill-equipped to handle the additional layer of complexity that a disability such as autism provides to these government services. All in this chamber would agree that the first option is the path that we would hope for any child with a disability, be it autism or another. This is why the reforms in this bill are essential and must be put in place as soon as possible.
Whilst early intervention is ideal from a social perspective, it is also worthwhile considering the positive economic impact of quality early childhood education. It is far cheaper to spend money now and save on welfare dependency, the court system and healthcare providers later in life. It is a much better bang for your buck to spend the money in the first few years of life, rather than in the next 70 years trying to improve or make up for what could have been achieved earlier.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) have published clear recommendations on early childhood. Coupled with the United Nation’s Children Fund their key fact states:

Early childhood is the most important phase of overall development throughout the lifespan…Many challenges faced by adults, such as mental health issues, obesity, heart disease, criminality, and poor literacy and numeracy [skills], can be traced back to early childhood.

On the issue of brain development the WHO continues:

The more stimulating the early environment, the more a child develops and learns. Language and cognitive development are especially important during the first six months to three years of [a child’s] life. When children spend their early years in a less stimulating, or less emotionally and physically supportive environment, brain development is affected and leads to cognitive, social and behavioural delays. Later in life, these children will have difficulty dealing with complex situations and environments. High levels of adversity and stress during early childhood can increase the risk of stress-related disease and learning problems well into the adult years.

My office, as you can imagine, has been inundated with phone calls from both parents and childcare providers today and yesterday. They have strongly encouraged me to support the bill without delay and without amendment and point out many childcare centres with good practices which already meet or are close to meeting the new child to staff ratios. The parents have also indicated that they are happy to pay a few extra dollars to ensure that their child receives quality education when they are in the care of one of the state’s care facilities.

There has been significant lobbying from some within the childcare sector to vote this bill down, or at least amend it. There has also been media attention from the against campaign. The Advertiser labelled it a ‘Child Care Revolt’. I appreciate the change within any industry can sometimes be confronting and often challenging; however, I believe that the concepts promulgated by these providers amounts to pure and simple scaremongering.

These childcare centres claim that there will be a substantial increase (up to 20 per cent) in the cost of child care to these centres if the bill is passed in its current form. They believe that this will force closures of childcare centres and result in unregulated backyard care. They also claim that it will result in women having to quit work to look after their children.

I have not seen the basis for this modelling, but the federal childcare minister, Kate Ellis, recently refuted these assertions in last week’s Advertiser article. She said that independent expert modelling shows increases would peak at $8.60 a day in 2014-15. I certainly do not think that a dollar a day increase in care for our children amounts to a prohibitive figure. Quality costs money and never is quality more important than when it refers to the health and education we provide for our community and our children.

Yesterday morning, coordinated by United Voice, I met with several childcare providers and operators and people from peak childcare bodies in South Australia. They do not understand how the opponents’ modelling of this bill can possibly be correct and neither do I. Naysayers on this bill have suggested that no consultation has occurred. However, I have been told by many stakeholders in the sector that consultation on this restructure began some five years ago.

To me, it seems that consultation on this has been indepth, comprehensive and inclusive. Those within the sector who are not aware of these changes have surely been living under a rock. If a stakeholder in this sector has not contributed their views to the longstanding consultation, I am not sure why as there has been plenty of opportunity to do so.

This morning I met with Pam Cahir, Chief Executive of Early Childhood Australia, and her colleague, Kate Ryan, President of the South Australian branch of the same organisation. Early Childhood Australia is the peak advocacy body for young children. She told me about the extensive round of consultation she has been engaged in for three years on these reforms. She has crisscrossed Australia several times on behalf of the federal government. She is based in Canberra but has been in Adelaide and several other locations—Port Augusta, Port Lincoln and Mount Gambier—sounding out the sector on these reforms.
Criticisms of the time lines have been raised with me in letters and emails by some of the bill’s detractors. They claim that six weeks is not enough time to implement the required regulations; however, these imminent changes were actually notified back in December 2009—almost two years ago—and the ratio changes have been in the pipeline for, again, as I said, five years. I think this is certainly adequate time to put amendments into operation. The current legal requirement for toddlers in care is a one to ten ratio.

I do not have any children yet but, from my limited knowledge of this age group, I would not want to be trying to control and keep track of what 10 kids in this age group are doing at any given time. A far more manageable ratio of one to five from 2014 seems utterly sensible and the way forward.

The final disparaging comment I have heard from this bill’s dissenters relates to the TAFE and university education systems and their readiness to deal with training further staff for accreditation in this area. I have been assured via the minister’s office briefing that this is all in hand and that people already working in this area will receive recognition for prior learning where applicable and, where retraining or additional training is required, as long as staff are working towards attainment, they will be allowed to continue working.

I note that many TAFEs throughout Adelaide and regional Australia offer childcare qualifications, and that both UniSA and Flinders University offer specialist degrees in early childhood education so they are equipped to educate children from birth through to eight years of age. The fee/HECS-HELP concessions apply to early education degrees and will continue to apply. Students enrolling in these degrees pay lower fees post graduation if they work in a region or postcode of need in an attempt to encourage young people to work in this career path.

Reducing red tape and bureaucracy and ensuring all care providers sit within the same regulatory framework seems a fine aim and not something to panic about. Moving DECS from being a provider and a regulator to just being a provider seems perfectly logical to me. These reforms also account for a review in 2014.

We have 337 childcare centres in South Australia, and I would like to think that all of them will be operating under the provisions in the bill very soon. Given that these national reforms have been based upon sound research that highlight just how important early education and intervention is to the long-term health and well-being of our young people, I cannot see any need to filibuster on this matter. South Australia signed a COAG agreement on this some time ago, and for us not to support these would cause significant problems and, indeed, embarrassment for South Australia at a national level. With these comments and with the knowledge that these are well-resourced reforms, I indicate my support of this bill unamended to the council.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. R.I. Lucas.