Margaret and Tony Abbott visit a Canberra childcare centre in 2012.

Margaret and Tony Abbott visit a Canberra childcare centre in 2012. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

As Frances Abbott’s university scholarship makes the news, there is another Abbott family university degree that has not been reported on to date. But it too is part of a remarkable story.

The genesis of this degree lies not in any actions of Tony Abbott’s government but in those of Kevin Rudd’s.  Rudd and his early education minister, Maxine McKew, started an ambitious plan to ensure that Australia’s childcare workers obtained higher qualifications in line with the importance of the work that they do.

When Rudd was first elected in 2007, few childcare workers, or educators as they are now known, held formal qualifications.

Among this cohort was one Margaret Abbott, long-term director of a community-based not-for-profit occasional childcare centre in Sydney. When the woman who was to become Tony Abbott’s wife was a 16-year-old in New Zealand, she went to teachers college. But, like many of her peers, she had never obtained an early childhood education degree.

The Rudd Government embarked on a massive restructuring of childcare designed to ensure that all educators had qualifications in childcare, with at least one educator in each centre being a university qualified early education teacher. Rudd embedded these new qualification requirements in a plan called the National Quality Framework for Education and Care. In 2010, there was an estimated 9700 university-qualified early childhood teachers working in early education and care centres across Australia. By 2020, this will have increased to 17,500.

One of these teachers will be Mrs Abbott. With little fuss or fanfare, Mrs Abbott has enrolled herself in an early childhood degree, studying by distance education at the University of New England.

Going back to study as a mature age learner is never easy, and Mrs Abbott should be congratulated for taking the plunge to upgrade her qualifications. (Luckily she was enrolled pre-budget so the Abbott family will not have to “share the pain” of fee de-regulation and higher HECS.)

But then maybe it isn’t so hard for her. She was quoted in the North Shore Times this week as saying that her life had not changed greatly since her husband was elected as Prime Minister. 

The intent of Rudd's National Quality Framework was to encourage those who have worked in childcare for a long time to upgrade their qualifications. It also was designed to increase the number of qualified workers in our childcare centres by improving the ratio of educators to children.

Why are these two things so important? Qualifications and ratios?

Quality matters in early childhood education and care. Kathleen McCartney, a Harvard researcher puts it this way: "The importance of childcare quality is one of the most robust findings in developmental psychology." Community Child Care Co-operative (NSW), an advocacy group for early education, quotes at least 123 studies that have been undertaken in the US and about 40 from the rest of the world that demonstrate the effectiveness of high-quality early education.

In a submission to the Productivity Inquiry into Child Care, Community Child Care says that “essentially the most important element is the quality of the relationships that children form with their educators”.  It says that there are two main factors that allow children and educators to create great relationships. “The first is the ratio of educators to children. The second is the qualifications of those educators''.  It says that ''especially important is the presence of degree qualified early childhood teachers”.

Although the work of childcare educators is often denigrated as babysitting, and the pay that childcare educators receive is in line with the lack of status of the profession, early childhood teachers undertake the same length of degree as their primary and secondary counterparts and it is no less rigorous a degree.

Unfortunately, the National Quality Framework is now under attack by the Abbott Government.  To the Abbott Government the framework is a mess of red tape designed to make it harder for childcare centres to conduct their business. The requirement for staff to be appropriately qualified is slowly being unpicked. A national partnership under which diplomas in early education at TAFE were exempt from fees was not extended in last week’s Budget.  Childcare advocates are also concerned that the review of the National Quality Framework being conducted at the moment may mean that the quality of children’s early education is compromised by removing key qualification requirements.

Lisa Bryant is a consultant in the early education and care sector and is the NSW convenor of Australian Community Children's Services.