Interview: centre owner-manager Tamika Hicks on CCS implementation and the importance of ECEC advocacy
The Sector Founder Jason Roberts recently sat down with centre owner-manager and early childhood activist Tamika Hicks to discuss the implementation of the Jobs for Families Child Care Subsidy (CCS) package, the challenges involved, and the need to continue to strongly advocate for early childhood learning to the wider community and government.
Interviewee: Tamika Hicks – Owner
Organisation: Cardinia Lakes Early Learning Centre
Date: 15 August 2018
Topic: CCS Transition
Jason: I am here with Tamika Hicks, centre owner and early childhood activist. We are going to be talking about the CCS transition. So to start off, just for context, can you share a little bit about yourself?
Tamika: Of course. I’m about to clock over 18 years of working in the sector. I started in October 2000, which was a gap year for me. The gap year was in between finishing my teaching degree but my teaching degree was plan B. My plan A was to join the police force.
Jason: Right. That’s very different.
Tamika: So, I arrive in Melbourne and ended up working in an ABC centre in Mount Albert because I had a passion for young children and working with young children, and basically I never left.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: I stayed there. I completed my studies and studied the diploma, the advanced diploma and went on to do an infant massage instructor course. I then went on to do the certificate in training and assessment, and did some teaching at TAFE for certificate 3 and diploma. And 18 years later, here I am. So, throughout that period of time I worked for ABC, I worked for other corporates, and I worked for a community centre for around six years.
Tamika: I have owned two centres of my own. One was an abandoned ABC centre that was deemed as non-viable. So, I got that up and running and had that for six years. Then I took a break and during that break, I worked for United Voice as one of their organisers. I worked with many directors throughout Victoria in trying to create a network of directors that talked about advocacy, leadership and bolstering the community awareness of the Big Steps campaign.
Tamika: Then I was very, very fortunate to go and work for Minister Jenny Mikakos for nine months as her early years adviser, and that nine months was to date the career highlight of my life.
Tamika: To be able to work for a minister like Jenny, who is so passionate about the early years and providing as much support for children who are from vulnerable and disadvantaged families was a breath of fresh air for me. Then once that finished then, I opened a centre out in Pakenham [in Melbourne’s east].
Jason: I see.
Tamika: Yes. Which has been quite challenging, but also quite rewarding as well. I still do a lot of advocacy for United Voice as a member. And also, for the last nearly four years, I’ve been on a policy committee for the Victorian Labour Party concentrating on women’s affairs.
Jason: Great. Well thank you for that background. If we now move to the CCS can you talk a bit about your experience?
Tamika: So, the CCS has been a bit of a mixed experience from my perspective.
Jason: Can you expand?
Tamika: Yes, from a centre perspective, as an owner, having a system that streamlined the subsidies is a welcome theme. The CCS has streamlined that complexity and that’s been fantastic.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: But from the families’ perspective, which directly impacts me, it has been very hard. We are in week six, if I’m not mistaken and we still have families that are struggling to get the transition happening, and the lack of resources at Centrelink and the lack of understanding from the stuff at Centrelink on the transition has been very challenging.
Tamika: The lack of understanding from the government or the foresight of what that was going to look like and the hurdles involved – that has been disappointing. Someone in there playing the devil’s advocate of, okay, so what is this going to look like.
Tamika: Centres have been carrying the debt because families cannot afford to pay full fee. And just the little things like most of our hardworking families get four weeks of annual leave a year. That’s 20 days a year. I know some of my families have taken two or three days off work just to go down to Centrelink to try and sort out their transition issues.
Tamika: But that is not good enough. Over the course of the six weeks, we’ve carried between $10,000 to $15,000 worth of debt. Which might not be a big deal for the corporates or for providers that have got three or more centres, but for your single-owner operators, that’s a big chunk to have to carry. But you are left with no choice because those families cannot pay full fee. You’re effectively saying to them, “You pay full fee or you don’t have a spot.” So, therefore you can’t make it work. So, there is still a lot of teething issues. But it’s getting better each week.
“Over the course of the six weeks, we’ve carried between $10,000 to $15,000 worth of debt. Which might not be a big deal for the corporates or for providers that have got three or more centres, but for your single-owner operators, that’s a big chunk to have to carry. But you are left with no choice because those families cannot pay full fee. You’re effectively saying to them, ‘You pay full fee or you don’t have a spot.'”
Tamika: But the other thing that came with CCS, which I was only just talking to someone from the Child Protection Office yesterday about, is the disconnection with families who are facing one or more of the factors of the Additional CCS. They now, have to go to someone who is more often than not a stranger at Centrelink to talk about those really tough family situations that they’re going through.
Jason: In order to qualify?
Tamika: Yes. So instead of working with the centre to whom they’re building these relationships with, they now have to take go down feeling uncomfortable, vulnerable and speak to a Centrelink officer about these problems.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: So, centres can initiate that first six weeks of care which was before 12 weeks. And now, if they need ongoing support after the six weeks, we will have to support them in getting all the information required to submit and then go down to Centrelink, which is so disconnecting and it’s not good for those families that are in those vulnerable or disadvantaged situations – those precarious situations – that’s not a good position to put those families in.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: And yes, I suspect the government might say, “We’ve cracked down on this and look at this number of reduced special child care benefit” but in fact the drop in that number might be because those families are not going forward in seeking the support because they don’t want to put themselves in that position of sitting in a Centrelink office, sitting in front of someone that they don’t know, explaining a really vulnerable situation.
Jason: And the kids, therefore, would stay home.
Tamika: Yes, exactly.
Jason: Ok. Let’s explore post transition a little bit. Ok, so there are two types of families. There are families who qualify for some subsidy via the means test and the activity test but haven’t been able to have their applications processed due to one of a number of factors. For these families, their subsidy would not flow. Which means that somebody ends up having to carry the debt or if they can’t afford full fee they pull the children out. Then the other cohort is families who had subsidised care dollars for the transition and now don’t have subsidised care dollars.
Jason: Yes. So, with regards to the first one, where was the root of that challenge? Was the root of that challenge with the third-party software provider? Was it with Centrelink? Was it with the families? Or was it with the centre?
Tamika: I think everyone had a part to play in that.
Jason: Was it amplified by a lack of training or understanding or handholding or support?
Tamika: I think it was the resources and the process. There needed to be a simpler way of saying: this is what’s going to happen, this is the role of the centre, this is the role of the parent, and the parent needs to do this and then this to get to there.
Jason: Yes, I see.
Tamika: There were a lot of resources that went out that were very bureaucratic. Nothing that was just a 101, simple, this is what’s going to happen. Like a basic transition flow chart.
Jason: Did your third-party software provider help in that regard? Who stepped into the breach?
Tamika: In those initial couple of weeks, it was the centres that had to work it out because we could see that there was this big cauldron of trouble with payment.
Jason: Yes. I see.
Tamika: So the centre manager would engage with the families. Okay, so have you done this? Okay, come in and log on to the MyGov website here at the centre, so then we can show you. Grab your phone out, log on. Let’s see what it says. Let’s see what you notice is etc, etc.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: I think the biggest frustration was in those first couple of weeks. Because all the software providers are under the pump. You’re on the phone for a long period of time. You can understand where everyone is at because you can see that everyone’s in the same boat. You know, you might have QK that are waiting for the government to get back to them because something that’s coming up as an error message is not in their manual. So, they can’t help the providers. Well, what does this message mean? Or we have been told about this message but we’re waiting to hear back from the government to understand what that is.
Tamika: You knew that the moving pieces were just continuing; we have to work with it. But to try and get their families through the process, you just had to work it out and then try and piece it together yourself.
Jason: But as an owner of the business reluctant to turn families away, the financial burden of that limbo period was carried by you.
Tamika: Absolutely. I would be very surprised to hear of services that turn families away.
Jason: So, sitting here today, just closing off that area of the discussion, of those families, how many are now registered?
Tamika: So, we’re carrying about six families that are still waiting for CCS.
Jason: Back in the week of 10 July, how many were there?
Tamika: Yes. That was around 28.
Jason: All right. Now, let’s look at the other cohort then. The other group of families who for reasons that we now understand, are receiving less subsidy than they did under the old regime. How have you managed those families?
Tamika: We’ve actually been quite fortunate. We’ve only had a small handful of families that have ended up being worse off.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: Yes. The majority of our families have been better off. For the majority of our families, the transition has been beneficial.
Jason: That is great. So, it feels like we’re okay today relative to four weeks ago. Four weeks ago it would’ve been a very different conversation.
Tamika: Yes, that right. And the other thing that I’ll add is that the government should have thought through centres carrying the debt of families, and centres not turning families away. But they didn’t. And to make matters worse, they ended up paying the families back directly and not the centres. What a stupid decision that was. The centres are the ones that are carrying the debt, why not you just back pay the centre?
Tamika: So, we’re in a tricky situation. With some vulnerable and disadvantaged families where we’ve really had to keep on top of that communication saying, “now you’re going to be getting some money coming in over the next few days and remember that’s to pay off your debt to us and not for you to keep.”
Jason: I see.
Tamika: And there are some that we’ve really had to handhold through that process because we know that as soon as that money hits their account it’s going to go somewhere it shouldn’t.
Jason: I understand.
Tamika: And I could imagine in your remote and more disadvantaged areas, the back paying issue would be a problem.
Jason: That’s right.
Tamika: Families not having access to the support to go through those steps online especially if they’re not near a Centrelink office. I have got one parent in particular that spent a number of hours on the phone over the two or three weeks post transition. But she was able to because she worked from home and she had her phone on hold, waiting. But for families who were working your normal 9 to 5 job, where you had your 10 minute break, your half hour lunch break, and an afternoon break: when do they have time to get on the phone?
Jason: I understand.
Tamika: And it comes back to those families who have only got 20 days of annual leave and they’re taking two or three days off to go down Centrelink office.
Jason: Yes. That’s hard. What about the notion of sessional care? Have you explored that as an option at your centre?
Tamika: Yes, and we’ve done that. Specifically for families who need it.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: Yes. And there’s another example of lack of resourcing as well. We’re still doing paper based sign-in and sign-out. There’s two things around the changes to a mandatory digital sign-in and -out process that I’ve got a bit of a beef about. I totally understand where the government’s coming from. I’m not convinced that they’re going to use it for good. It’s going to become an hourly fee if the Liberal Government continue on their hacking of investment into the early years to create another budgetary saving opportunity. And with it introduce a range of challenges for the sector. That then will come with complications around employment of educators.
Jason: Well, that’s right because that’s the casualisation argument, isn’t it?
Tamika: That’s absolutely right. But when parents come in and sign in and out, that’s the time that you can then have those connections and that communication with parents because we’ve got to think, it’s not like primary school, when we drop them at the gate. Those first five years, they’re still very young. They’re very vulnerable. The National Quality Framework talks about the family being the child’s first educator, talks about building relationships, and the communications and connections between family, the community, the centre and the children.
Tamika: You go on to a touch-on, touch-off system and you’re losing that one or two minutes that you can get conversing with families every day.
Jason: Yes, right.
Tamika: So, turning early learning centres into these – I hate to say it, but these very clinical, no communication drop off and pick-up point – for these precious little assets. And the other thing that comes with that is the lack of resourcing. You’re expecting all of these services to go out and buy the iPod and pay for the software package and all the infrastructure.
Jason: Yes, that’s right. Ok, let’s move on a bit now. So, from your perspective as an owner, do you feel that there’s materially more administrative requirements for you now than there was before?
Tamika: I don’t think so. I think the transition in itself hasn’t really increased anything that we weren’t already doing.
Jason: What about for families?
Tamika: Well, the initial set up was challenging but has settled down now.
Tamika: The added complexity, if they want to receive that extra support through the ACCS that then that’s again something that they have to go and jump through hoops to access.
Jason: Yes. So overall, if you were to make any changes where would they be?
Tamika: I think the initial enrolment sign-up process for families could be simplified materially. I understand that the government want to have access to all of the data on what families are doing but they have all that data once the families are enrolled through the attendance submissions anyway.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: So, that initial enrolment needs to be simplified. Then of course, the families who were vulnerable and disadvantaged need to have more access.
Jason: Yes. Let’s talk about that now. I suspect that’s around the activity test, is that right?
Tamika: That’s right. This is the thing that infuriates me. The government has access and knows all the research behind the vulnerabilities of children when they enter prep. They know that in comparison to other OECD countries, we [Australia] don’t spend enough money.
Jason: So why do you think they elected for this type of model?
Tamika: Because they don’t value those children who are at that bottom end of the scale, they will just go through life and become whatever anyway. The street sweepers, the cleaners, whatever it is. That, they don’t place a value on. I find it quite hypocritical because they talk about not playing scores and children aspiring to be better. But if we don’t help those children, like the one in four children going into prep with the vulnerability, we’re really saying, it doesn’t matter. Well, why doesn’t it matter? Because if you want those children to succeed and achieve, why aren’t you setting them up in the early years especially when all the research shows that that first five years is vital?
Jason: I understand.
Tamika: Yes. So, we now have a solution where a child used to get 24 hours a week at the bottom end and now they get 24 hours a fortnight. That isn’t great. And all of the peak bodies are saying that 12 hours is okay, ‘Well, we negotiated to 12 hours. It’s better than nothing’. Well, no it’s not, it’s not better than 24, which we should have all been fighting for.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: Yes, non-negotiable for these children that we know are better off enrolled in a quality early learning program to ensure that they then hit prep, in the best way possible.
Jason: Got you. So, from a fix perspective the shift back to 24 hours a week would be quite straightforward. So what about that cohort that earned more than $67,000 less a $140,000 per annum that only have one parent working?
Tamika: I think you’ve got to a look at it universally. So with a base entitlement no matter who you are right across the age groups.
Jason: I see, but of course the politicians will say that will come with a price tag.
Tamika: Maybe. Early learning is not a sexy vote, we know. That kinder year is a short period of time tocatch that slice of voters.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: It’s not as sexy as school, because a lot of people see, formal schooling as something that they get very passionate about, but for some reason in our community we don’t get that passionate about early learning access because a portion of the community still see it as care. Ie: it’s the ability to put my child somewhere, where I feel safe and secure to enable me to go to work.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: That is where we need to change the community awareness and understanding, and we are getting there. Every family wants or aspires for their child to be better off than they are.
Jason: I see.
Tamika: Yes, and we can advocate more. You see Goodstart advocating a lot more around community awareness and you’ve seen the peak bodies do the same, and are gathering momentum around that community awareness piece, and having those discussions with families to get them to understand that how important those first five years are. They understand but it’s talking to them professionally about the synapses of the brain, and doing things like encouraging families with more than one language at home to speak to children in two languages because we know their brain development is much greater if they are exposed to two languages.
Jason: Yes, of course.
Tamika: Understanding the National Quality Framework and our early years learning framework and what educators do each day for their children to help reach their milestones and push them above and beyond that, and ensuring that their child is not one of those statistics of vulnerabilities once they hit prep. You know they’ve got to hit the ground running and it is getting bigger and the momentum is gathering but there’s still so much that we can do as a sector in terms of advocating to the community about it. Within the sector, you’re preaching to the converted but it’s about grabbing that first five years and getting them to understand the importance and what they can do, like they can vote with their feet. We had some candidates at our centre last week to talk about kinder funding because if kinder funding gets cut it is going to impact families at my centre because their fees are going to go up to cover the cost of that kindergarten teacher. And if fees go up then I’ve got a balance of families that are either going to be able to afford that fee increase or they’re not going to be able to afford that fee increase, and what does that mean for those families who can’t afford that?
Tamika: We are on an endless hamster wheel of chasing the government to commit to more than one year of funded kinder. Whether they’re going to palm it off to the states or what have you. At the end of the day, someone has to pay for that and that’s the taxpayer, but we only have that cohort of kinder children for one year. So it’s advocating every year to those families about how important kinder is for the next three rooms of children in our centre that are going to come through and eventually reach kinder. It’s an endless advocacy battle.
Jason: Yes. You know a labour government winning the next general election. Is it possible, is it? I would say it’s a probability it’s more than a possibility. The question is with regards to our sector, what are they going to do?
Tamika: I eagerly await the policy announcement.
Jason: That’s right. I think we’ve come to an end now. Thank you very much. Really appreciate it.
Tamika: Thank you.