Amidst all the news about childcare over the past few months – including “free” childcare, changes to drop off and pick up routines, and prioritising care for children of essential workers – one change has gone largely unnoticed. Following months of consultation, the guidelines for the Commonwealth Government’s Inclusion Support Program (ISP) have been updated and came into effect in March 2020. The changes are mostly good news: expanded eligibility criteria for support for children with additional needs, increased timeframes for short-term support, and an increased approval threshold for Innovative Solutions funding. However, it’s what is missing from the changes that is most disappointing.
In our submission to the then Commonwealth Department of Education in November last year, we highlighted the continuing gap in the Inclusion Support Program for inclusion support for children from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds, particularly those from refugee or humanitarian backgrounds or who have experienced trauma. Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services often require additional support to meaningfully include these children and their families, such as language support or cultural training for staff (Productivity Commission 2014, p. 523). These needs may be heightened when supporting inclusion of CALD children with disability, as cultural differences in how disability is understood around the world can impact significantly on effective engagement with families and access to early intervention support (Early Childhood Intervention Australia, National Guidelines for Best Practice in Early Childhood Intervention, p. 10-11).
We have feedback from thousands of Bicultural Support placements over 40 years about the difference Bicultural Support can make in facilitating the inclusion of CALD children within a childcare setting. These include stories of children who would not participate in lunch until supported by a Bicultural Support Worker; of CALD families of children with a disability who have been engaged in culturally safe and respectful conversations about their child’s needs; of children whose mood and confidence changed immediately upon hearing a worker speak in a language they could understand. In addition, Bicultural Support can be a vital link in helping ECEC services support CALD children to maintain their home language as well as learn English, through building capacity to understand the learning journey of bilingual children and respond positively to diversity. A few hours of Bicultural Support can make all the difference to a child from a CALD background settling into a childcare service, and the service being equipped to offer meaningful inclusion.
Despite the positive impact and value-for-money approach of Bicultural Support, changes to the Inclusion Support Program in 2016 introduced a mountain of ‘red-tape’ to access Bicultural Support. Following these changes, the uptake of Bicultural Support in NSW fell dramatically from around 100 allocations of a Bicultural Support Worker per month (prior to 2016) to just one 1 allocation per month (2019). In addition, the time required to apply for and access the funds for Bicultural Support means that it is often not available during the most critical period – the child’s early days at the centre.
The review of the ISP Guidelines last year offered the perfect opportunity for the Department to address these issues. However, the revised guidelines do not incorporate any of our recommendations. While we applaud the changes to the guidelines which will make it easier for children with disability to access support, particularly prior to diagnosis, we remain concerned that children from CALD backgrounds are being left behind and left out of inclusion support. We urge the Commonwealth Government remove the administrative hurdles and make Bicultural Support freely and easily accessible to the children, families and ECEC services who need it.
Ingrid Boland, Social Work Consultant for ECSC