Children's Services Amendment Bill 2019

October 17, 2019

I am pleased to make a contribution on the Children’s Services Amendment Bill 2019. The overarching purpose of this bill is to provide for consistency in the operations of early childhood education and care services in Victoria by aligning the Children’s Services Act 1996 with the national quality framework. The bill before the house will establish a new approval scheme for persons who provide children’s services such as occasional care as well as the operation of those services as regulated under the Children’s Services Act. It will provide for the monitoring and enforcement of the scheme and is consistent with the relevant objectives and guiding principles of the Education and Care Services National Law.

When the national quality framework was introduced in 2012, a majority of early childhood services in Victoria were brought within the scope of the national law and the remaining 8 per cent of services—predominantly those of occasional care services—continued to be regulated under the Children’s Services Act regime. The 8 per cent accounts for about 340 services, consisting mainly of occasional care services, limited-hour services, mobile services and activity groups. I can say that a lot of those are in regional areas. I noticed in Tatura recently that there is even a little Save the Children bus that sets up a playground in the park, and mothers, babies and children come just for a short period as it is an opportunity to duck away to a doctor’s appointment or whatever it might be that crops up. This bill will not roll the remaining 8 per cent into the national framework, but it will bring consistency across state and national legislation. The guiding principles of the national law will be aligned, as will approvals processes for premises and services. The bill will provide for perpetual approvals and align operational requirements for services such as notification of incidents and complaints. That consistency is obviously a very strong reason for the legislation. The bill contains one key operational change, which is the provision of early childhood programs to be based on an approved learning framework, and it aligns offence, monitoring and compliance provisions with the more comprehensive framework contained in the national law. Within my electorate of Shepparton the local neighbourhood houses are providing quite a bit of the occasional childcare services that we have in our community.

In the township of Tatura the small community house is running a small childcare service called the Cubby, which is licensed to have up to 15 children in care and provides three lots of 5 hours a week care to local families. They are a growing service. They have recently been able to increase their services from two days to three days of care with additional funding, and they are now open during school holidays as well. Next year they will be looking at licensing options to try and meet the local demands and allow for an increase in the hours of operating their childcare services. Tatura is part of that very significant fruit and vegetable growing community where a lot of people come in on short-term contracts to pick fruit, and having this sort of short-term service for people who are often working full-time but still have the need to put their children somewhere just for a short time and attend to some of their business is so important. I certainly remember when my children were small how important just that 2-hour break could be to go and do something. It makes it a very different service to full-time day care that full-time working parents need.

At Numurkah the Numurkah Community Learning Centre has been running two childcare sessions, one on a Thursday and the other on a Friday. On Thursday they provide 4 hours of care for children aged three years and above, and on Friday they provide 5 hours of occasional care for children aged nought to school age. That centre is trialling an after-kinder care program and is looking to possibly expand more next year, particularly the services they provide on a Thursday. The local coordinator of children’s services at that Numurkah centre, Jayne Kam, detailed that there is still a real need within the community for occasional care. Whether it is to provide some temporary relief, allow a parent to go to a doctor’s appointment or for those who require a flexible model of care, the option of occasional care can be really important. Jayne said last week that a parent recently learned about the occasional care service after she had been struggling for ages trying to get some childcare services together. She has found this service and was so happy to be able to call on it. When you have no family or available friends to drop your children with for that short time, occasional care certainly fits the bill. This is the essence of an occasional care service—life happens, things come up and when you need that extra care and support these occasional care services are there to help you out. 

It is welcome to hear that within the proposed amendments there will be no effect on the provision of long day care for occasional care services that operate less than 15 hours a week. This allows for the occasional care offering to continue and to be recognised. In conversations with our occasional care providers in the electorate of Shepparton we heard a very consistent message that it is important to them that the legislation has not created a greater administrative burden on those smaller regional and rural childcare centres. The Tatura Community House childcare service has only one full-time staffer who does most of the policy, compliance and procedures work required for their occasional care service. Child care forms just part of their business services, just part of many of the administrative tasks they have. The model on which most of these services are being delivered in our region does depend on there not being an administrative burden created and built on all the time.

Alongside occasional care, neighbourhood houses are running a variety of other workshops and training, health and wellbeing sessions that support social groups and many other people in the community. Any increase in administrative requirements for a small team would have a negative consequence for their capacity to deliver what they really deliver on very skinny budgets. Just this year the board of management of Morrell Street Occasional Care, which operated out of the Mooroopna Education & Activities Centre, known as MEAC, had to make the heartbreaking decision to close their occasional care centre, and it was due to the running costs and attendance levels of the service no longer being sustainable. Jan Phillips said that their centre simply did not have the capacity to work or the funds to dedicate towards the significant number of hours required to undertake that transition that was happening last year. The federal government’s national framework required a lot of work to be done to allow those centres to transfer over, and while the state department was providing assistance to a number of those small occasional care organisations to be able to go through the long process of getting that work done, unfortunately Mooroopna really slipped through the system. It is very unfortunate that that is the case, because Mooroopna is a very needy community, a very disadvantaged community, and that local centre does provide a lot of services. It is very disappointing to see that service in Mooroopna not be able to, in a sense, have the resources to be able to go through what it needed to go through. Bringing the Children’s Services Act 1996 in line with the national quality framework will reduce confusion not just for operators of children and care services but around the training being provided to students of children’s care services in the field, as the changes will bring the Children’s Legislation Act into alignment with the national framework to reflect the learning given when you are on placement.

It is vital for the sustainability of our smaller regional childcare centres to ensure that the administrative costs do not outweigh the benefit of providing these services in our community. To lose the flexible and occasional models of childcare services in our regional communities would be a great loss to families who would then not be able to get that short-term support that occasional care gives them. I have got a lot more to say, but time is running out. I think it is important to say that early childhood and access to services in those early childhood years are important everywhere. Often in rural communities we do have people who are not located close to their families and who do not have access to that short-term support. Mooroopna in itself is a community that does suffer a lot of disadvantage, but so does Shepparton and so does Numurkah, and indeed Tatura has its challenges too. It has been able to provide a very successful service, and the increased funding that came through neighbourhood houses last year has helped.

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