Wednesday 2 June 2004

1.6 Child care -

Mr FINCH - Minister, probably my main question here is about the Child Care Unit itself and the operations of that, how it works and I would appreciate a little bit more about how money is allocated.

Ms WRIEDT - In terms of its main role?

Mr FINCH - Just the unit. Tell me how many are in there, how many run it. Are they based here in Hobart?

Ms WRIEDT - Basically the main function of the unit is licensing of child-care services. We had a new Child Care Act in 2001 and that is in varying stages of implementation at the moment. The first lot of service is needing to comply with the revised standards of the outside?school-hours care sector et cetera. That is the first time that the outside-school-hours care sector has ever been licensed. It has previously been unlicensed so it has meant that there has been a huge variance in the quality, but we now have a set of minimum standards that each of those services has to be able to provide and we have worked really closely with the people within that particular section of the industry to come up with acceptable standards.

There is an initiative in this Budget of $20 000 to run a series of professional learning workshops for staff in outside-school-hours care to take them through all the different ways that they need to be looking at implementation of standards. They have some professional learning opportunities and that is a first because they have never had the opportunity to take part in any of that before and indeed they have not needed to because they have not been licensed and it has been very ad hoc, so to speak.

The Child Care Unit has 10 staff. It is headed up by Judy Hebblethwaite who is the director of early learning and she was previously the manager of the Office of Youth Affairs. She has some other responsibilities as well, but she basically is the director. There are a number of licensing officers in the south and then in the north and the north-west and they are the people who go out to the services. They also have a role to play at the moment with the new services that we are co?locating in schools, the six centres that we are co?locating in schools with the $4 million over two years that we were given from the Economic and Social Infrastructure Fund. They are working with staff from our facilities branch of the department alongside the project managers in terms of the sorts of requirements that those centres will need in their design in order to meet the licensing standards. They are also working with any potential child-care providers who want to open centres in Tasmania. We have had two corporate providers who have come into Tasmania and who are proposing to establish centres. One of them which I think if not already opened is due to open soon, is at the technopark in Launceston where ABC Learning Centres have a nationwide contract with the Westpac bank.

One of the concerns with the corporate providers coming into Tasmania has been that they would all set up in the same areas and given that we were having our program of establishing new centres, we wanted to ensure we did not end up with four new child-care centres in a row saturating an area. At one stage there were five new ones pencilled in for Blackmans Bay-Kingston and I said, 'We need commonsense to prevail', and tried to work with the corporates. They were all about to sign on the dotted line to purchase land literally next door to one another. There is a role in trying to coordinate as best as possible where the centres are located so that there is not oversupply in some areas and undersupply in others because then you have the situation of not being able to offer parents really any additional care, but you also have the situation of under-utilisation of some, which could affect their viability.

They have a fairly broad role. There is some funding that they administer to support playgroups and play centres, both the Playgroup Association of Tasmania as a statewide body, but also then individual playgroups and play centres. Have I forgotten anything else? I have a child?care advisory council which is a ministerial council which comprises of representatives of the child carers, all the different sectors of the Child Care Association. There are 12 members on that from around the State and they liaise pretty closely with the Child Care Unit. The Child Care Unit plays a fairly large role in communicating with all the centres. We have in total 220 centre-based services both in outside-school-hours care and long-day-care and occasional care. So they do play a role in getting out information to all of those centres as well. They put together regular newsletters and so on, updates of things that would be of interest to people in the sector, updates of information that is received from the Federal Department of Community Services on grants that are available. So they play a fairly big coordinating role and networking role as well, given that we have such a wide variety of services around the State.

Mr FINCH - Do they investigate where child-care places are needed? Do they go out and deal with the schools to investigate and ask how they are going, particularly with after-school child care?

Ms WRIEDT - The short answer to that is probably no because generally the outside?school?hours care are things that the schools themselves or communities themselves have decided to establish. We have 91 of them around the State, a combination of privately operated ones and community based. Many of them are located on the school sites themselves. Some are located off site. In effect no, they are more regulating.

[2.45 p.m.]
The Commonwealth determines the number of places. There is a distinction here between actual services and places. The State has no control over the number of places that are allocated. The places are significant because in order for parents to receive the child-care benefit which is fee relief that goes directly to the parent, the Commonwealth decides how many places in the State you are allocated for outside-school-hours care for long-day care and so on and a service cannot open up unless they have places allocated. They could, but the parents would not get fee relief.

CHAIR - How would the Kingston one have got through the hoop then with nearly four next door to one another until you pulled it back?

Ms WRIEDT - We have not had a shortage of long-day-care places in Tasmania. There have been excess places. They do not say that you can only have so many places in a suburb, they say, rather, you have this many places for the State. We have not been able to have any new outside?school-hours care ones established because there have not been extra places, so the State allocation for outside-school-hours care places and for family-day-care places was at its maximum level so there could only be shuffling of the deckchairs, there could not be any centres established.

There was a problem when Peppercorn, one of the corporate providers, bought St David's Child Care Centre off Anglicare and also as part of the deal they bought the outside-school-hours care program at Lansdowne Crescent. The parents at Lansdowne Crescent did not want the corporate provider in there but they could not say to them, 'Well, we want out of that deal and we will set up our own', because there were not any more places available in the State in order to do that and they were caught between a rock and a hard place in that situation.

There is generally a bit of tension between the States and the Commonwealth in relation to allocation of places. Tasmania received additional family-day-care places recently from the Commonwealth which will assist because we had quite a few family-day-care schemes that had carers wanting to become licensed family-day-carers with long waiting lists of parents but there were not the additional places. All they were doing was constantly shuffling the places around so if a service was under-providing and had excess places they kept moving them around the State. Now they have increased the number I think by about 137 places, so that will benefit family day care.

Mr FINCH - I have a message from the Exeter Child Care Centre registered for 48 children. They have a lack of places, particularly for the under-two-years-olds; they provide care for before and after-school children and also the vacations; they run the Beauty Point Child Care but they are piloting an after-school care program. They had very little funding over the last 12 years, which was provided by John Watson. They need more funds for upgrading their facilities. Where do they go? Do they come to the Child Care Unit and investigate possibilities?

Ms WRIEDT - This is the bone of contention. Since 1996 there have been no capital funds apart from a small amount of funds for minor upgrades to meet licensing standards. There have not been any capital funds available for expansion of child-care centres in order to get additional places and have more children in there.

There were capital funds up until 1996 and that is why between 1996 and now there have not been very many child-care centres established. In order to meet licensing standards, it costs around $12 000 per place to establish a centre. You are looking at anywhere between half a million and a million dollars in order to build the building and fit it out according to the licensing standards.

In 1996, the Commonwealth Government fundamentally changed the model of funding child care. Instead of providing operational funding to centres in order to supplement their income and providing the capital grants to build new centres, they moved to the model of the child-care benefit to give fee relief to parents. We had about eight centres around Tasmania closed subsequent to that. It is very difficult to make a profit out of child care.

It has been interesting. I had somebody telling me about the share prices of Peppercorn recently which have gone down 30 cents overnight but even the corporates are struggling. The costs are going up, even though child-care workers are paid, I think, less than garbage men; and there are some pretty appalling wages in the child-care sector but the costs are still going up. There are not any capital grants; there are only some small ones. There has been lobbying right around the country. There is a child?care round table, I think, that Larry Anthony as the minister responsible has. There has been no success. All sectors of the child?care industry have been saying this repeatedly since 1996, that that is the hindrance to the expansion of centres, but the message has not been getting through.

Mr FINCH - Just a note that I had recently. The new?child care centre at Kingston was built with $500 000 of government funds. Was that State Government?

Ms WRIEDT - Yes. The provision of child care has always been a Commonwealth government responsibility, but it got to a point where because of the boom in the economy here we had a lot of concerns being expressed, particularly in professions such as nursing where there is a recognised shortage of qualified people, that there were people there willing to work but they could not get child care and that was preventing them from either returning to the work force or taking on additional hours. We had the allocation of $4 million over two years to enable us to build six new child?care centres around the State in areas of high demand and we worked those out, based on the demographics.

We went through and analysed the waiting lists, as did the former peak body here, the Tasmanian Association of Children's Services. They did waiting lists and that showed a conservative estimate, and this is back in March 2003, that there were 30 000 hours per week of unmet care around the State. Out of the sale of the government assets, the former Treasurer announced he had secured that allocation and that has been used. That was a one-off response to quite a significant problem and that is going to provide 237 additional places in those centres being built at Kingston, Bowen Road, Waimea Heights, Miandetta Primary, Burnie Primary and Norwood Primary. Waimea is a 30?place centre, most of the others are 50 or 52 and Bowen Road is 62. That will provide care for potentially thousands of children because not every child takes one place because they are part?time, so that should have an impact on that.

Mr FINCH - Okay, thanks. You mentioned licensing before. Is the Child Care Unit the only licensing body or is that in tandem with another agency?

Ms WRIEDT - Yes, the Child Care Unit is the only licensing body under the Child Care Act 2001 but there is Commonwealth accreditation. All services have to go through Commonwealth accreditation in order to receive places and hence the child?care benefit. We have an unfortunate situation where there is a lot of overlap. The Commonwealth would argue that their accreditation processes are not so much about the physical surrounds of the buildings but more about the types of programs that are being provided. There is sometimes a really large degree of overlap and it is a burden on the services to jump through the same hoop twice for different people.

Something that I have raised with Larry Anthony - and I know that it is supported by many in the child?care sector - is to try to come up with the one national system so that they do not have to go through such a process. The argument that Larry Anthony has put up is that if you do that, it would be so hard to get agreement that you would be taking the level down so low that it would be a very, very low standard. I am a bit more of an optimist and I would say that people within the child?care sector want a high standard and want to be able to demonstrate a high standard and we have been very fortunate the way that the child?care sector here has worked with us in developing the Child Care Act so that we have one of the most stringent acts in the country as opposed to Queensland which has some pretty big loopholes in theirs, I would say, from things that I have heard. So in terms of licensing, yes, just one, but the waters are muddied for accreditation.

Mrs JAMIESON - I just wonder what you call long?day care and does it extend into weekends at all or is that not envisaged?

Ms WRIEDT - Long?day care is the form of child?care centre with certain operating hours. It is the terminology for that form of care as opposed to family day care which is in a person's home. So it is centre?based and the hours of operation can vary from 7 a.m. or 7.30 a.m. until generally 6 p.m. There was one centre I know of in recent years that we did trial. Five years ago they did trial opening on weekends. That opened on a Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and it was not successful. They found that even though parents had said to them frequently that it would be good if there was some weekend care, particularly the parents who were working full?time, where they could put their kids while they went off and did all the errands they had to do, it did not work. There seemed to be some guilt associated with parents putting their kids in child care - as if there was not enough guilt on parents - but there was an added guilt in doing that and they were choosing to use other forms of care, such as grandparents and friends.

Mrs JAMIESON - What happens in the case then of a single parent with a child and they become unwell for any reason and are carted off to hospital, for example? If the kid was in long?day care, what happens at night then if mum or dad is not able to pick them up?

Ms WRIEDT - All child?care centres are required to have under the act and standards a plan in place for what they call the abandoned child situation, in case the parent just does not show up. For example, where my children are I know that if it is 15 minutes or so past the time, parents know if they are going to be late to ring. If you are not there at the 15 minutes cut?off they ring Community Services because that is officially then an abandoned child. I did get caught in traffic once and rang at one minute to six to say they were not abandoned children. Also, every five minutes past the closing time it gets very expensive, so that is the disincentive to leave your children there. They all have to have a plan in place. They all have to have at least two emergency contacts on their enrolment.

Mrs JAMIESON - Who sets the policy for infectious diseases and any other conditions like that?

Ms WRIEDT - Once again, it is in the standards that each of the centres have to be able to demonstrate that they have the relevant information and that they have a process in place for notification. Staff are trained in knowing which diseases are mandatory reporting ones, which ones they ring to notify parents of. For example, I quite often go in and there is a sign on the door to the room where our children are, saying there is slapped cheek syndrome or tonsillitis, conjunctivitis or whatever and showing us what to look out for, what the incubation period is, what to do and so on.

Mrs JAMIESON - And isn't there a restriction on the number of times that one child can use the day service for the week, for example? In other words, do you have full?time kids?

Ms WRIEDT - The only restriction is in relation to the Commonwealth child?care benefit and if you are not a working parent, you have a limit of only two full?time days or the equivalent of two full?time days that you can have your child in care and that you receive the benefit for. You can have them in care for longer than that but you will not receive the fee relief for that. If you are working full?time then you can get the child?care benefit; if you have indicated that to the Family Assistance Office, you can have your children in and get the benefit all week.

[3.00 p.m.]
Mrs JAMIESON - Do we have the number of student mums or dads, college-aged students? I know there have been two or three at Don College, for example.

Ms WRIEDT - No, we do not but there is a child-care centre at Newstead College and also Claremont College has a Young Mums Program.

Mrs JAMIESON - Don College has one.

Ms WRIEDT - Don College has one as well. There are quite a few in colleges. When Newstead College was built there was a long-day care centre established there. That is used not only by students but also other people from the area put their children in care there, including staff of the college. The TAFE campus at Warrane has a child-care centre as well adjacent to it. We do not have figures on those.

Mr HALL - Could you provide the committee with the cost of licensing day-care schemes and the outside-hours day-care services and for those training and also how much will the child?care scholarship program cost?

Ms WRIEDT - How much is each scholarship worth?

Mr HALL - Yes.

Ms WRIEDT - It varies according to the sort of qualification they want to undertake. We have $35 000 that we put into the scholarship scheme which has gone up - we have been increasing it, I think. The first year it was about $15 000 and that is administered now by Early Childhood Australia, Tasmanian Branch. It used to be TACS, the Tasmanian Association of Children's Services; they have a scholarship committee. It is available for the people who are working in the child-care industry or people who want to. It varies and can be anything from a few hundred dollars if they just want to go through a recognition of current competencies or RPL process - Recognition of Prior Learning - through to $700 to $800 if they want to undertake a full diploma or advanced diploma from TAFE. The number varies from year to year. It is quite a significant number, about 150 last year. The money does go a long way because we are talking in some cases of very small amounts, but I can get figures.

Mr HALL - There are other occupations that are in higher demand too. Why scholarships just for child carers; why not for tour guides?

Ms WRIEDT - There is a shortage of childcare workers for the reasons that I have mentioned earlier to do with the low wages. It is a licensing requirement to have qualified childcare workers and whilst there is some latitude within services, depending on the size, to have a contingency of unqualified people, there are very strict guidelines - you cannot have an unqualified person on their own but you can have an unqualified person in a room with a qualified person.

There is a recognition of a shortage of childcare workers right throughout the country and the low wages is a very, very real issue. I do not know whether you happened to see on the Sunday program last Sunday a report on this. There was a forum with a range of people discussing this and the issue of wages is a very real one.

It is not a very heavily unionised industry and they have never really got their act together to lobby for increases in wages. The Commonwealth Government is saying they will not do anything about it. Whilst the individual centres would like to pay their workers above?award wages, they know that the only way they can afford to do that is to put up the price of the child care and that would act as a disincentive for many parents.

The nature of our child-care industry is such that we have 85 per cent of our centres community based, which means they are not-for-profit organisations. Any money that they do make goes directly back into the organisation and they run on the smell of an oily rag. They also have a strong commitment to providing that service and they do not want to put it out of the financial reach of many parents so there is not the scope for them to address it.

You have a situation where a qualified childcare worker who has a Diploma of Children's Services can go and work in a call centre at entry level - walk into a job in a call centre and earn almost double what they would earn in the child-care centre, for answering a telephone as opposed to working with children in those really important early years that we all know so much about. That says to me that there is something fundamentally wrong because to be part of that developmental process of children when they are at their most vulnerable in terms of brain development is a very, very responsible job. I am not denigrating people who work in call centres, but it is about telephones versus children and children's learning and all the responsibility that goes with that. So there is a huge shortage related to primarily the salaries and the lack of recognition that still is a hangover from many years ago that child care is babysitting and that child-carers are glorified babysitters.

To demonstrate how incorrect that is, we now have the Essential Learnings framework; we have a document called Essential Connections which is specifically aimed at child-care professionals and how they can incorporate the Essential Learnings into the work that they do with children from birth through to school age, so it is so much more.

The demographics of childcare workers also show that there are a lot who are young. When they have their own families they get out of it, because you do not want to put your own child in child care, then go and work in a child-care centre all day and then go home to the same?aged children. I volunteered in a child-care centre for a day and that was enough.

CHAIR - The only question I have on child care concerns the new licensing process that is in now. Were there any child-care facilities that were not registered under the new act?


CHAIR - So everything we had that wanted registration got it and any new ones coming along -

Ms WRIEDT - Outside-school-hours care does not begin until next year. They will not be licensed. The licensing of outside-school-hours care against the new standards will not be completed until February 2005.

CHAIR - There is an expectation that everyone will be -

Ms WRIEDT - Yes. There is a long lead-in time. I think it is three months that you have to put in an application for licensing, and that three months allows the licensing officers in the Child Care Unit to work with the service in order to bring them up to the standard. We would not want to see the situation where we could not license a service for not being able to meet the standards because that would mean we would have to close it down. So if there are problems, part of the licensing officers' role is to assist them to make the relevant changes.