The ten biggest ECEC news stories of 2019 – The year in review

by Jason Roberts

December 17, 2019

As we approach the end of the year, it has become a tradition at The Sector to conduct a year in review, and reminisce about the biggest early childhood education and care (ECEC) news stories of the year. 

 

When thinking back on the year that was, we arrived with a shortlist of 20, which has been whittled down to ten. In presenting these to you, we have strived to cover the full spectrum of sector interests – a list which will hopefully act as a marker of progress vis a vis previous years. 

 

We hope you enjoy it. The team at The Sector thank you all for your support in 2019 and look forward to bringing you the best of news, views and reviews from across the ECEC sector again in the New Year. 

 

Counting down from ten to one, we present to you the most significant news stories of 2019. 

 

10 – After years of growth G8 changes direction with en bloc sale of 25 centres in WA

G8 Education, the listed for profit provider that grew from only a handful of centres to become a sector giant confirmed that they would be selling 25 centres in Western Australia in one line to a single purchaser, Sparrow Early Learning

 

Although G8 had closed or sold individual centres previously, this was the first such transaction since the new board and executive team have been in place and also just happened to be the largest representing around 5 per cent of their Australian portfolio. 

 

After years of growth followed by a several years of slow growth G8 has now signalled it is moving into a different phase of its journey where a more proactive portfolio management strategy is being adopted which is likely to be a sign of things to come in 2020.

 

9 – Supply of new LDC centres remains persistently elevated despite hopes of slowdown

After years of heavy new supply growth many had expected that 2019 would herald a slowdown in the number of new long day care (LDC) centres being developed and opened across Australia but that hope has proven ill advised with new license approvals remaining elevated for yet another year. 

 

Using the first nine months of 2019 as a proxy (as Q4 data has not yet been released) in total 242 new centres have opened compared to 240 in 2018, 222 in 2017 and 163 in 2016 with New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland leading in overall contribution according to ACECQA snapshots

 

If there is a silver lining in this years numbers it is that the smaller states have seen reductions in the number of centres opened year on year but as yet the sheer scale of new openings in the larger states more than makes up for them.  

 

8 – Free TAFE for ECEC courses become a reality in VIC and QLD

2019 saw confirmations from both the Victorian and Queensland state governments that Certificate III and Diploma ECEC courses would be classified as “high priority” and offered free to eligible applicants. 

 

Both states have expressed commitments to ECEC, with Victoria committing to funding three year old kindergarten as part of their hugely ambitious ten year program which will see almost $5 billion invested into the sector and Queensland committing to a new free pre-kindergarten program in state schools as part of their KindyLinQ pilot

 

The announcements in 2019 mark the first of their kind and hopefully will lead to a more widespread commitment by other states and territories across Australia in 2020. 

 

7 – Goodstart announces the end of charging on public holidays policy

In a surprise move Goodstart Early Learning confirmed that they will cease charging families for education and care on public holidays marking the first such policy change amongst the larger ECEC providers in Australia.

 

The policy of charging for public holidays has always been contentious, given that families who have booked their children into a service would be expected to pay for the service even though the centre was not open, and served to render Mondays and Fridays as the least popular days for families who had a choice over days in care.

 

By reversing their position on public holiday charging Goodstart, often a trendsetter amongst the larger providers, has now set a new precedent that will in the short term cost families a little more (fees for all centres will rise by $3 per day, prior to CCS being applied) but in the intermediate to long term make Goodstart that bit more attractive to both current and prospective value orientated parents as well as force competitors to think carefully about their own pricing policies.  

 

6 – Education Council commits to sector first workforce strategy

The discussion about meeting the increasing demand for qualified staff stepped up a level in 2019, perhaps on the back of revised guidelines from ACECQA, who amended the conditions under which an employee can be considered an ECT in light of the publicised challenges in meeting the requirements, particularly for rural and remote services. 

 

With the advent of three year old attendance being supported and subsidised in Tasmania and Victoria, and with peak bodies such as Early Childhood Australia lobbying for three year olds to be included in the 15 hours of learning in the years before school, pressure fell on the Federal Government to respond. 

 

In what may come to be a signal of a move toward meaningful action in addressing the challenges, Education Council requested that “senior officials” report back to the Council in early 2020 on the scope of a new national workforce strategy for ECEC.

 

5 – ALP puts wage equalisation policies on the radar with educator pay election promise

Although the Australian Labor Party were ultimately unsuccessful in the 2019 Federal Election, their willingness to openly commit to a range of pro ECEC policies, in particular their commitment to address the long standing issue of low educator wages, was a first for a major political party at a Federal Election. 

 

Bill Shorten’s announcement at a campaign rally in the marginal seat of Chisholm that their new policy, that would see educator pay increases of up to $11,300 over 8 years, would “go into the pockets of educators without increasing fees” was a game changer in that regard. 

 

As we now know the ALP were unsuccessful in convincing the broader electorate that their policies were in the best interests of the country BUT the very fact that the ECEC wage issue was introduced to the national political agenda was very meaningful and puts to an end the absence of the recognition of this long standing iniquity at the highest levels of Government. 

 

4 – ACECQA receives funding boost after lengthy review of whether “fit for purpose” 

After the announcement in December 2018 that Education Council would launch an independent review of amongst other things the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) was “fit for purpose”, a period of uncertainty set in as to what the outcome of the review would be, and, if negative, what impact it would have on the regulator and ECEC sector at large. 

 

Fortunately, those fears were allayed with confirmation from Dan Tehan, Federal Minister for Education that the outcome of the review was sufficiently positive to merit the Government committing $46 million to fund ACECQA from July 2020 to June 2023 enabling it to continue to support the delivery of nationally consistent and high quality early childhood education and care under the National Quality Framework. 

 

3 – Landmark study emphatically links benefits of early learning to economic output 

It has long been known that quality ECEC provision provides multiple benefits to children from a learning and development perspective, but what was less clear was to what degree it benefited society as a whole, and in particular, what economic benefits investing in early learning could bring. 

 

That changed in 2019 with the release of a new study A Smart Investment for a Smarter Australia  which clearly shows that investment in early childhood education yields a 100 per cent return, with every dollar invested generating two dollars of benefits via boosted productivity, increased workforce participation and earlier identification of developmental vulnerability in children which can then be addressed. 

 

The study conducted by PwC and commissioned by The Front Project provided the first tangible assessment of why investing in the early years is so important from an economic perspective and provided an additional lever by which advocacy groups can press policy makers to take the early years seriously when it comes to allocation of funds. 

 

2 – CCS gets its first spring clean with Bill Amendment passed by Senate

While there remains room for improvement, in terms of both the construction and delivery of the Child Care Subsidy, 2019 saw not only the first full financial year under the revised system, but also a signal from Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan that he is open to receiving feedback from the broader sector in terms of how the system might be improved. 

 

Speaking with delegates at the ACA Victoria conference for example, Mr Tehan received feedback about the re-enrolment process for families using OSHC, the limits of ACCS to be applied at centre level, families receiving back payments and not passing these on to the service and partially completed CCS applications not being save on the portal, some of which was subsequently addressed in the revised Bill, announced in November 2019. 

 

The amendment Bill passed the Senate in December 2019 and opened the way for changes to be adopted and passed into law.  

 

1 – Early education receives significant boost in new COAG Education Declaration

The December 2019 meeting of the Education Council, saw the release of an updated version of the Council’s vision for education in Australia. 

 

This vision is articulated in the newly released Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration which is of particular note to the ECEC sector because of the more visible representation of early learning as an essential component of the overall education system, and a more explicit recognition of the value of early learning to children’s development. 

 

The step change in the visibility of early learning in the body of the Declaration when compared with previous years and the explicit acknowledgement of its value, is the culmination of years of advocacy from the ECEC sector and in the years to come will be seen as a significant milestone.    

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