Dept of Ed “maximising and prioritising care” email prompts push back as increasing demand puts pressure on providers
An email communication sent to early childhood education and care (ECEC) providers by the Federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) titled “Reminder about maximising and prioritising care” has been met with push back from providers as they struggle to manage a complex operating environment which is set to become more challenging as schools go back and demand ratchets up again.
The email, dated 28 April 2020, commences with a note of gratitude to providers for the care they are providing, and of appreciation for the “careful business decisions” that are being made to protect the health and safety of children and staff at their services as well as in some cases manage staff absences.
The message then goes on to add that the DESE has “had reports that some families are having problems accessing care” and that now was a good moment to “reflect on some of these competing priorities, and to recap your obligations in return for receiving ECEC Relief Package funding.”
The ECEC Relief Package, which has seen funding flow since 9 April 2020, is now fully in force and has seen financial commitments from Government provided in exchange for services remaining open, providing care to families for free and prioritising care to essential workers.
The challenge faced by many providers at this juncture is that since the initiation of the “free childcare” policy enrolments have crept up to levels where total costs are now approaching alignment with the income they are receiving from the ECEC Relief Package and JobKeeper and that if they were to take on more enrolments, service viability would again be put into question.
As a result operators are behaving in a cautious manner when engaging with new and existing families about care, which runs contrary to the Government’s messaging to families about “free childcare” availability.
This reality is particularly acute as JobKeeper payments have yet to flow to those that are eligible to receive them, and because the Exceptional Circumstances Supplementary Payments, which would provide additional cash flows for services to increase available places for families, approval and payment timelines have not been communicated at all, and payments are not flowing to those services that have seen pick ups in demand.
Irrespective of the challenges faced by the sector, DESE notes that they do not expect a service to compromise on safety in the pursuit of accommodating families but they do expect services to “think carefully and maximise the care you are providing, and to have policies in place to ensure you can and are prioritising essential workers and vulnerable children.”
Finally, DESE highlights that a “hotline” for parents and services to report concerns has been established, that processes are now in place to investigate and validate any such submissions and that any breaches discovered could lead to payment cancellations.
Providers can’t see path to meeting more demand without improvement in funding structures
With the main ECEC peak bodies as yet largely publicly silent on this issue thus far, providers have taken to direct messaging and social media to express their concerns about the implications and contents of the email against the backdrop of gradually increasing demand in a revenue constrained environment and with the spectre of schools reopening shortly likely to create a second wave of demand that will be hard to meet without new funding arrangements.
One provider, who manages a group of centres in Queensland and spoke directly with The Sector, recognises the tension between service viability and the structure of the ECEC Relief Package noting that “the ECEC Relief Package payments and JobKeeper payments combined with roster and rent reductions but before support office costs enables us to operate our centres up to around 75 per cent of our February occupancy levels. We are now approaching that level which in theory means we are at capacity.”
He went on to note that “for us to be able to add more parents, which we know are coming as schools return, we will need more funding to pay for staff. The ECEC Relief Package payments will not cover the extra children’s costs.”
Another provider based in New South Wales noted that she understood the intent of the DESE’s email but questioned why it wasn’t aimed at the small minority of providers who had been the focus of parents concerns, as opposed to the vast majority of providers that are trying to do their best, and went on to add that her real concern is what the immediate future looks like with “schools returning in the next four weeks and parents more and more likely to want to participate in the “free childcare” offer.”
The challenge for many providers at this juncture is that there is a willingness to adhere to both Mr Tehan’s and the DESE’s call to maximise the amount of care they can provide to families under current circumstances, but in the absence of additional funding their ability to deliver on that requirement is proving increasingly difficult to impossible.
These sentiments and more were echoed on social media where ECEC professionals expressed a broad range of concerns about aspects of the ECEC Relief Package which were proving to be pain points, such as being unable to seek support from families to supplement meals within the service, or to ask families to provide nappies and formula as challenges in maintaining the same high levels of service provision persist in the wake of less revenue and the financial pressures that creates.
Another education and care professional posting on social media described the experience of reading the communication as “belittling” saying the majority of educators and operators are dedicated professionals who are working tirelessly to support children and families, and expressing frustration at the lack of flexibility and independence the new system imposed on their ability to make business decisions.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect new information received since initial publication.