Interview on ABC Radio Darwin Breakfast with Adam Steer
Topics: New child care package; NAPLAN online; New funding for Duke of Edinburgh Award Disadvantaged Youth program
Adam Steer: The Federal Government’s new Child Care Rebate scheme has been operating for just over a month, amidst complaints it’s leaving many working parents out of pocket and worse off – the exact people the government says they are trying to help. So, how has it been for you? If you have kids under five and in care, give me a buzz – 1300057222. Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister. Minister, good morning.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Adam. Great to be with you.
Adam Steer: The Australian Childcare Alliance says 25 per cent of families are worse off under the new system because of the income test or because they don’t meet the activity tests. Are you prepared to admit there are some mistakes in the policy, which is leaving some families worse off?
Simon Birmingham: Well Adam, we’ve always acknowledged that we have been redirecting funding to those families who most need it. Now, we estimate that around one million Australian families are better off as a result of this policy and that here in the Northern Territory around 6500 families are better off as a result of this policy. And they’re better off because we are providing greater support to low and middle income families, to those who are working the longest hours, and better targeting child care assistance. Now yes, if you are on a high income above $350,000 you lose access to the Child Care Subsidy. But I think most people would also think that’s a pretty fair approach too.
Adam Steer: I can give you an easy example – the formula is worked out worked out on how long the child care centre is open each day, not how long the child is in care, as that varies day to day, will be too onerous to administer for the child care centres. So, if a child who qualifies full-time for 100 hours a fortnight subsidy, which is the highest you can have, the child care centre is open for 110 hours a fortnight, which means the parents are paying for 10 hours or a full day fee, leaving them $60 out of pocket.
Simon Birmingham: And what many child care centres have done is actually provide 10-hour sessions of care because it is very unlikely that children are actually in attendance for longer than 10 hours. And so in the overwhelming majority of cases what we’ve got is that parents and taxpayers have been slugged for care that is not actually being accessed and I’m very pleased that so many centres, and indeed, I was at one yesterday – a Goodstart centre – have varied their sessions of care to better reflect the hours of eligible subsidy that are available to those families and I would urge other centres to absolutely follow suit.
Adam Steer: So your message to parents if they feel that they are out of pocket, they might be out of pocket $100 a fortnight, which is a considerable amount to the family budget, you’re saying that they should speak to those child care centres to get them to alter or offer a separate opening hour scheme, is that correct?
Simon Birmingham: Well, let’s understand a couple of things there. Firstly, it’s highly likely for those parents that the rate of subsidy they’re receiving for the 50 hours a week has gone up. Secondly, the $7500 cap on the Child Care Rebate has been abolished for all families earning less than around $186,000. Now, if you’re in- if you have a child in child care for more than 50 hours a week, you would have been running out of support probably in January or February of the financial year. So you’re actually still going to be, over the course of the year, thousands of dollars better off. But yes, I would also urge you to speak to your child care centre about the fact that they are slugging for a very long day session, 11 or 12 hours, where very few children, if any, are likely to actually be in attendance for that length of time.
Adam Steer: There’s also been some teething problems with some parents not getting the subsidy into their bank accounts. What have you been able to do to iron that out?
Simon Birmingham: We successfully transitioned more than one million Australian families into the new Child Care Subsidy system. Of course, a change of this scale and magnitude – more than one million families, thousands and thousands of child care centres across the country – is not without slight administrative hiccups. Overall, I would declare it a significant success that we have seen such huge take-up and successful transition. We’ve been helping through Centrelink and the Department of Human Services individual cases where people may have a problem. And if you do have a problem, please make sure that you get in touch with Centrelink or if need be feel free to give my office a call as well and we will make sure that we put you in touch with the right people as quickly as possible.
Adam Steer: Further up the scale in education on NAPLAN, there’s thoughts for it to become online. There are serious concerns if it is rolled out online in the Northern Territory it will further disadvantage remote students. Do you agree with that?
Simon Birmingham: We have to make sure that NAPLAN online is a success everywhere. Now, this year we had many thousands of students across Australia and hundreds of schools participate for the first time in NAPLAN online and it went very, very smoothly. What we are continuing to do now is trial new technology that allows it to operate off of platforms that can work in remote locations, guarantee that we can give that accessibility. But of course there is also then access to the type of technology that ensures students are ready to use NAPLAN online. Thus far, what we’re seeing is that those children – and I went and visited schools during the NAPLAN week – those children who walk in and sit down at a computer to undertake it are eager, enthusiastic and highly engaged in terms of their literacy skills with using technology and we have to just make sure that it is, as I say, an effective test everywhere of the literacy and numeracy skills that we’re seeking to check.
Adam Steer: Yes, but in some of those remote communities those children don’t have regular access to a computer at all, so won’t they be disadvantaged by having an online test?
Simon Birmingham: And that’s of course why we won’t see a complete rollout of online. We’re continuing to run a dual system for ultimately as long as it takes, to make sure that everybody is ready for the transfer. But we also need to work…
Adam Steer: That will be never. There isn’t Wi-Fi those communities, is there?
Simon Birmingham: There are satellite services in those communities and we indeed can develop tools in terms of people being able to apply the test in offline environments as well. So you can absolutely come up with the technological solutions. Of course, getting the infrastructure, the hardware out there is important and they’re the types of things that we’ll continue to discuss with the Territory Government about how it is that record and growing school funding is deployed to make sure everybody gets access to the opportunities, not just to do NAPLAN online, but most importantly, more importantly, to high quality teaching, learning around the basic literacy and numeracy skills and richer subject knowledge.
Adam Steer: You’re on ABC Radio Darwin. It is 7.28. Adam Steer with you. You’re also hearing from the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Jamie has texted in: if my centre is open- on childcare, if my centre is open 7am to 6pm how do they vary their session hours?
Simon Birmingham: Well indeed they are able to vary their session hours. They can charge individual families for as short or as long a session as they like. That’s up to them. Just because they are open for that duration of time does not mean that they need to charge families for every minute of the day that the centre is open. Some families come early. Some families come late. What we’ve got is that some centres are now charging for 6-hour sessions or shorter sessions to reflect the fact that it better meets the needs of those families.
Adam Steer: You’re announcing a further $1.5 million today to get disadvantaged kids into the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. Where does that scheme operate in the NT? Is it for only kids in Palmerston and Darwin? Are remote schools including in that?
Simon Birmingham: Look, it’s open to all schools. I can’t tell you the list of NT schools. I’m heading to Clontarf Academy with Kathy Ganley and others today to make this announcement. I can tell you, around 550 Northern Territory students participate in the ‘Duke of Ed’ scheme at present. It provides a mix of opportunities for development, particularly in areas of volunteering, in community engagement. There’s a very strong ethic and message there that I think is important and useful. And our funding will help around 2500, particularly targeted to disadvantaged students to better access the ‘Duke of Ed’ and I’ll certainly have a chat to the ‘Duke of Ed’ scheme about how they make sure that that targeting of disadvantage spreads right across Australia, including into the remote areas.
Adam Steer: The Prime Minister is due back in the Territory for the second time in two weeks. He’ll be in Alice Springs today. What’s he announcing?
Simon Birmingham: Look, the PM’s there in Alice. I’m actually not sure entirely what his program has in store. I know that I’m visiting several schools today here in Darwin, as well as meeting the new Education Minister, Minister Selena Uibo, and engaging with both parents’ groups, as well as Catholic and independent school stakeholders. But the PM’s got his schedule.
Adam Steer: Well, it will be interesting to see what comes out of it. The texts are coming in saying truancy is a problem, not NAPLAN, but we’ll get to that next time. Minister, good to talk to you today.
Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, Adam. Thank you.
Adam Steer: That’s Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.