Speech – Address to the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, Canberra


Simon Birmingham:

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my pleasure to be with you this morning and can I begin by thanking Auntie Matilda for her welcome to Ngambri and Ngunawal country, and I give due respect to elders past and present here, and in doing so acknowledge also Uncle Benny and all of the dancers here today and pay respects to all Indigenous owners and elders across Australia. And as Education Minister, as I often say at such gatherings, acknowledge that as a country we continue to learn so much more of Indigenous culture and knowledge from Indigenous culture and knowledge, and to build upon that Indigenous culture and knowledge together as a nation.

I particularly want to pay tribute today to all of those of you that are gathered here today who work in early childhood education, health and welfare across different policies and programs, but especially those of you practically engaged in service delivery, in the education and care for our youngest citizens, our youngest Indigenous children across Australia. And as Education Minister, it’s in that context of early childhood education and development that I really want to focus my introductory remarks for this SNAICC conference today.

We all appreciate the early years of a child’s life are a vital period of development, especially for children in vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. And this is something that our Government – I think all governments, if we’re being honest, across Australia – are really focussed on working on, on how it is we support communities, and I know in the Turnbull Government that Minister Scullion and I and other ministers and the Prime Minister are particularly focussed on those challenges.

We know the challenges are real, but the number of Indigenous children, though, accessing child care positively has been on the rise. The latest data indicated the number of Indigenous children using approved child care and early education services is increasing by around six per cent – nearly half of these children attending approved child care and early education services in regional or remote Australia.

Some of you will be familiar with the Government’s child care and early learning reforms already, but I want to step through just a few of them. Our reforms particularly target support where it’s needed most to help those who need it most and provide more support for vulnerable and disadvantaged families. Our new child care and early ed reforms include a $1.2 billion Child Care Safety Net, with a number of elements particularly targeted to support Indigenous communities and access for young Indigenous children.

The Additional Child Care Subsidy is a core component of this – a top up subsidy to provide targeted fee assistance for families and children facing additional barriers in accessing affordable early education opportunities. Those families will receive 120 per cent of the scheduled fee, essentially guaranteeing access at no cost.

The Community Child Care Fund that we’ve established recognises that some services need support to address sustainability, viability issues, particularly those operating in regional and remote centres. This Community Child Care Fund will work to increase participation by Indigenous children in care, because we know that Indigenous children who regularly attend early education settings are generally better prepared to succeed at school in the areas of language, cognitive and social and emotional development. Services will be able to apply for funding to, for example, employ community liaisons to help disengaged families utilise the service, or provide transportation to help local children attend who cannot physically get from home to a service.

Part of this fund, importantly, is a restricted non-competitive grant which is specifically designed for the budget-based funded (BBF) services currently delivering child care and early education. This grant will be open in the next few months. If we look at the role the safety net will play in BBF transition, I think people will come to learn and appreciate just how effective it will be in supporting vulnerable communities. BBF services have long played an important role in many Indigenous rural and remote communities and their transition is the topic that I have most thoroughly, most regularly, discussed with SNAICC and I appreciate that legacy and engagement that we’ve had.

But as we all know, BBF funding has been capped too low for some time. That means that many services have seen potentially double the number of children who participate in their program but have continued to receive the same amount of funds. In the new system, BBFs that primarily deliver care and early education will be able to access three streams of financial support. Firstly, income from a new child care subsidy which will increase as the number of children in the service grows or the number of days they attend grows. And it is targeted very directly to provide the greatest support for lowest income families, support for up to 85 per cent of their fees.

Secondly, as I mentioned, the Additional Child Care Subsidy which would provide an additional payment to CCS families on top of the CCS, taking that up to potentially 120 per cent of the scheduled fee. Finally, BBF services will also have access to supplementary tailored funding under the CCCF. The CCCF set aside some $61.8 million through that non-competitive funding round of grants. That is the same amount of funding currently available to BBFs. BBFs, as a result, are guaranteed access to the existing pool of funding, with families also receiving for the first time two additional streams of child care payments, essentially guaranteeing that services can be no worse off and should be better off.

But services will need to play their part. Changes will need to, for example, be made to formally enrol children and families in the system. To assist BBFs during this transition to more generous funding arrangements, the Government has been making sure that there are very significant levels of tailored support to each service, particularly through PwC’s Indigenous engagement services. BBFs that do not deliver child care and early education services are being supported to transfer to alternative arrangements.

Outside of those changes to child care funding models, I’m also excited by the potential of our new $5.9 million pre-school program, English Language Learning for Indigenous Children, which is an innovative way to build school readiness and boost English literacy outcomes through the use of fun and culturally relevant interactive apps on tablet devices.

ABS data tells us that around 30 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under 14 years do not speak English well or at all. Building, though, on the successful Early Learning Languages Australia program, which has been rolling out foreign languages in pre-school settings, the English Language Learning for Indigenous Children (ELLIC) trial will run in at least 20 pre-schools, focusing on regional and remote areas to provide English language support in those pre-school settings. Consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities will inform the best approaches for the trial, including the inclusion of Indigenous language as part of that trial.

We know that quality pre-school prepares children for school, but the quality pre-school is particularly beneficial for children in circumstances of disadvantage. That’s why as a Government we have extended support for 15 hours of pre-school a week as part of the Universal Access arrangements, while we take a look now at longer term options.

Today we have the option of enrolling in pre-school in the year before they start full-time school, of which 93 per cent are enrolled in programs that are available for at least 15 hours per week. Our most recent data tells us that in 2016, 92 per cent of Indigenous children were enrolled in programs available for 15 hours a week. So yes, this represents a significant achievement. It indicates that we are on track to meet the closing the gap target of 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in pre-school by 2025. But we cannot afford to conflate enrolment with participation.

Attendance data suggest we still have significant work to do when it comes to regular participation in pre-school. Of all the children enrolled, attendance data suggests around 30 per cent are not regularly participating for the full 15 hours a week. For Indigenous children, this number is even higher, with around 40 per cent not regularly participating for at least 15 hours per week, and in some jurisdictions this number is reportedly as high as 79 per cent not regularly participating. While participation in pre-school is not compulsory, these participation rates are low enough to be of real concern, and beg the question of why are these children not attending and what can we do to help ensure they do?

So we offer a universal access program, 600 hours. But $3.2 billion of federal investment and nearly 10 years later, we’ve not achieved universal participation in contrast to universal enrolment or access, and in some locations we’re not even close. As we turn our minds to the future of pre-school funding, it’s those questions where my thinking will be firmly placed. Where is the greatest need?

With states and territories responsible for ensuring pre-schools can be universally accessed, how can the top up funding that the Commonwealth Government be best applied? Where can our policy settings and spending achieve the greatest benefits? Now, there are numerous debates in this space, and while I appreciate the arguments for universal three-year-old pre-school access, I would first like to see us resolve the participation conundrum in the four-year-old space, and I am especially mindful that the participation concerns lie in communities where children can least afford to miss out on the developmental benefits of pre-school attendance.

These are the challenges that I welcome SNAICC’s engagement with: how to ensure that the investment we make is getting to children who need it the most. Effective early education is not just a drop and run for parents, or families either. We know that children have the best chance of success when their parents are well supported to nurture and care for their children in their own communities. Programs such as the Connected Beginnings pilot our Government’s established will help us learn how to better address these challenges.

This integration of early childhood, maternal and child heath and family support services with schools and a number of Indigenous communities experiencing disadvantage will help us to engage parents early to evaluate the value of early learning opportunities for their children. I’m pleased that we have eight Connected Beginnings sites now up and running, with more to follow. They will hopefully provide a model for states and territories and planners to ensure services are truly integrated in the future. And we will closely work with communities to support those sites as they develop and mature, and learn from their best practice to help inform policy beyond.

So there are many opportunities, but also many challenges. Conferences like this provide an opportunity not just for ministers to come and talk about some of the government’s priorities and objectives, but of course for you to collaborate, to hear from our experts and to come forward with further ideas for reform in future. Thank you for the opportunity to be here today, but thank you for the work you do on the ground and the work you will do here participating in this conference. Indigenous culture, as we’ve recognised in the welcome this morning, truly recognises the importance of generations, the importance of respect for elders, the importance of building culture, respect, confidence and capability in young generations.

My youngest daughter had her fifth birthday last week, and as I saw the Torres Strait Islander dancers here singing Taba Naba, I couldn’t help but think of her coming home from an early childhood setting and singing Taba Naba to us, having learnt it whilst in her early childhood setting at her early learning centre. It’s, of course, that type of exposure to culture, to language, that is central across Australia, but importantly in settings like this that we think about those children who don’t have the same types of opportunities and how we can guarantee that they do get them in the future and have the types of opportunities to set them up well for life.

So thank you very much for what you’re doing. I look forward to hearing the outcomes of your conference and I wish you well in your deliberations.