Lessons from the Loch: what can Australia learn from the Scottish experience?
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.
In November 2015, the Scottish Government announced an ambitious plan to expand the provision of free early learning and childcare from 600 hours to 1,140 hours per year by 2020 for all three and four year olds, and eligible two year olds from low income families, similar to the proposal to expand Universal Access to include 15 hours of preschool for Australian 3 year olds.
Examining the warning signs from the Scottish experience, such as insufficient infrastructure, session allocations which don’t work for working parents, and a lack of government support to subsidise wage costs for qualified employees, Assistant Editor Freya Lucas explores the lessons Australia might learn from this reform, in the wake of the Universal Access funding proposal raised by Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
The issue in Scotland
Scotland’s leading providers of early education and care have reportedly expressed concern about the planned expansion of hours in 2020 for all three and four year old children. Responding to the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) annual survey, providers reported that only 30 percent of services were likely to offer 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare.
A spokeswoman for the campaign group Fair Funding for our Kids said “Parents struggle to access the 600 hours of free childcare they are already entitled to because so many councils will only offer a half-day nursery place – impossible for many working parents to use. We need a guarantee that the shift to 1,140 hours will end these half-day places, and if that’s not possible then the increase should be put on hold until logistical problems are sorted out.”
Currently, preschool children are entitled to 600 hours a year of funded childcare. In 2020, the amount of funded hours will more than double to 1,440 hours, mirroring the 30 hours childcare scheme operating in England.
NDNA Chief Executive Purnima Tanuku said “NDNA has uncovered the true predicament that nurseries find themselves in and it has reached a crisis point. Private nurseries don’t feel confident that sufficient funding will be passed on to providers by local authorities to make it worthwhile for them to deliver the full 1,140 hours provision.”
The average provider, Ms Tanuku said, was left having to absorb costs of £1,188 ($AUD 1921.12) per child over the course of a year, a cost which many small businesses could not sustain. She called on the Scottish Government to guarantee a fair rate which would enable all providers to continue with sustainable business models.
“The requirement for providers to pay staff the Real Living Wage, which is over and above the legal minimum, is too much for nurseries to commit to without knowing how much they will be given per child. Nurseries as responsible employers support paying proper wages for quality work but to do this, they need adequate funding from government to deliver the policy otherwise they cannot make ends meet.”
The Australian context
Ms Tanuku’s comments bear weight when considered next to the current issues the Australian sector has in attracting and retaining university-trained early childhood teachers (ECTs) – a longstanding issue which was in play well before Universal Access, and the disparities between states and territories in terms of how preschool programs in Australia are funded and run.
With a proposal from Bill Shorten to expand Universal Access to extend access to 15 hours of free weekly preschool to three year olds – including a goal to have 90 per cent of all eligible children enrolled in preschool programs by 2023 – should Labor come to power, it is important not only to look at the immense benefits this would provide to children and families, but also the infrastructure required to implement the program in a sustainable and equitable way.
There is value in reviewing the lessons learned from the Scottish experience in light of the funding proposal. Some measures have already been put in place in Australia to address potential pitfalls – for example, programs will be rolled out gradually, starting in 2020. By 2022, every 3 year old will have access to at least 5 hours per week. Some states, such as Victoria, have committed to an infrastructure development process to provide facilities for the additional numbers, and the Australian Labor Party has committed to plans to develop the workforce.
But is this enough? What will happen outside Victoria? How does the funding proposal work in a one-room sessional standalone preschool, with 2 four year old groups (who currently access 30 hours of funded preschool, 15 hours per group) and one three year old group (who typically attend on a Friday, for either a morning or afternoon 3.5 hour session?)
As seen in the review of the experience in Scotland – the variability of councils, states and territories in how much they fund and where, how much they build and where, and what training and development opportunities they support – leads to a disparate experience for 3 year olds, based solely on location, and the capacity of local infrastructure to maintain.
Retaining ECTs in long day care is also a pressing challenge for Australia’s quality reform agenda in early childhood education and care (ECEC). One in five educators are leaving the sector just at the time when they are most needed – projections show that even without the expansion of Universal Access the sector will need to accommodate approximately 300,000 children with subsidised care in an average year.
With calls from the Australian Labor Party to provide more ECTs to expand the Universal Access program to include three year olds, and with early childhood educators calling for an increase in wages, the question must be asked – where will the educators come from, and who will pay them?
This historical distinction between standalone preschools – which operate along the lines of school terms and with shorter hours – and long day care centres has created vast differences in funding, despite the fact that ECTs do very similar work in each space.
The majority of ECTs work in Australia’s 7,455 long day care centres and are paid according to the Educational Services Teachers Award. Meanwhile, standalone preschools – of which there are just over 3,000 – tend to offer better hours, pay and conditions owing to their status as educational facilities.
ECTs working in long day care settings are paid, on average, $10,000 less than their counterparts in standalone preschools for performing the same role. In light of the proposed introduction of three year old funded preschool, and in light of the Scottish experience, some urgent consideration as to the structure of the extension of Universal Access should be given.
Aside from the funded access to a preschool education for 3 and 4 year old children, there are other similarities in the Scottish/Australian landscape.
Like her Australian counterparts, Ms Tanuku is an advocate for quality. “Although we welcome the Scottish Government’s ambitions to give all children the best start in life… the sector needs to see the policy given priority and sufficient resources behind it for it to be a success”
The NDNA survey of the Scottish ECEC sector also found that two of the top three challenges for services in 2018 are increasing staff wages, and recruiting and retaining staff. There is certainly correlation here with the Australian experience.
The Scottish ECEC sector has had issues with staff moving from one poorly paid and recognised system to one with better benefits and kudos – reminiscent of the experience of ECTs in Australia as outlined above, but also of the divide which exists between those working in community-based non-profit services, typically offering above award wages across the centre (not just for ECT’s) and those working in profit driven spaces, where wage growth is more limited, and offset with benefits programs and incentive schemes.
Key learnings for Australia from Scottish reviews
The Early Learning and Childcare Expansion delivery trials: evaluation document, published in May 2018, evaluated the Scottish experience with funded preschool thus far. Several key learnings of interest to the Australian ECEC sector were identified, namely:
- The importance of clear and meaningful communication to parents and carers on the benefits of care for their child
- Engaging the workforce is important when changing work patterns to accommodate additional hours
- Time should be built in for recruitment, logistics planning, and communicating the offer of access to parents
- Consultation with parents/carers on the flexibility of the offer gave them a positive sense of ownership, and in some cases, revealed that certain offers may not be popular, and therefore not viable
- There is a need to continually focus on high-quality professional learning for the new and existing workforce as the expansion continues
- The benefits of partnership: working and sharing of practice within and across local authorities as the expansion continues.
A report by Audit Scotland, prepared for the Accounts Commission and Auditor General for Scotland argues that the Scottish Government should have started detailed planning with councils earlier given the scale of the changes required, and that delivering the increased hours will require a large increase in both staff and premises, which will be difficult to achieve in the time available.
That report, based on survey responses from councils, interviews with parents, regulatory authorities, focus groups, national bodies, and those currently providing care, concludes with a number of recommendations for the Scottish Government and providers to plan for the 1,140 hours. This report also holds rich learning applicable to the Australian context. The recommendations are:
- Updating the statutory guidance following agreement on important aspects of the 1,140 hours, such as funding that follows the child and delivering flexibility
- Continuing to develop the detail of how the expansion of the funded hours will be evaluated and ensure baseline data is available
- Urgently finalising and implementing plans for changes to the workforce and infrastructure to address the significant risks of not being able to deliver on time
- Collecting better information on the cost of different models of early learning and childcare and their impact on children’s outcomes to allow them to better plan for the expansion
- Working with partner providers of both funded and non-funded early learning and childcare to understand the impact of decisions on the wider system and reduce the risk of unanticipated consequences for these providers.
With further audits due in 2019 and 2020, closer to the implementation of the 1,140 hours, Scotland is an area for Australian providers and policy makers to watch.