Supporting families and reducing the cost of living were highlighted as key priorities by the Coalition at its official 2014 State Election launch on Sunday.
A number of initiatives were announced including a welcome boost to the number of primary welfare officers to cover all Victorian primary schools. While this increase does not mean that every school will have an officer based there, at least now all schools will be able to access this support. This as a positive initiative, particularly given the Federal Government’s decision to cut funding to non-religious welfare officers in schools which will leave a significant gap in support for students experiencing mental health and welfare issues.
The Coalition also announced $23 million over four years to provide a $100 non-means tested rebate for every child in their last year of kindergarten, excluding those who currently receive a fee-free place. This funding should be better targeted towards people on low incomes who most need support, rather than being given to families across the board, including those on medium and high incomes who are less in need of government assistance to meet the costs of kindergarten.
The cost of kindergarten does pose a barrier for many low-income families. The current kindergarten fee subsidy goes some way to addressing these issues, by allowing eligible children, including Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children and families with a Health Care Card, to access up to 15 hours of kindergarten for free or at low cost. However there are many other families who struggle financially, but do not meet this eligibility criteria.
At the very least, a kindergarten rebate should be means-tested to ensure that state funding is directed at those families that really do struggle to meet kinder costs and other living expenses. There are also other ways to help families that are struggling financially, such as supporting the Childhood Education Foundation, which subsidises kinder costs for families experiencing disadvantage.
High quality and affordable early childhood services help to give children the best possible start in life. VCOSS and member organisations have long championed initiatives that increase access to early learning opportunities, particularly for vulnerable families; such as governments committing to fully funding five hours a week of kindergarten participation for three-year-olds and 15 hours a week for four-year- olds. Additional funding could also be put towards increasing kindergarten funding rates and funding a new enterprise bargaining agreement that supports high quality teaching in early learning settings.
The Coalition’s untargeted non-means-tested kindergarten rebate proposal is particularly disheartening, given its decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) at the end of this year. The EMA is a targeted, means-tested payment that supports eligible families with the costs of schooling, including excursions, camps, books and technology. Families receive an amount depending on the child’s year level:
- Prep: $200
- Grades 1 to 6: $150
- Year 7: $300
- Year 8 up to the age of 16: $250
Under an alternative Coalition proposal, about half of Victorian schools will instead receive equity funding intended to support vulnerable students. However students facing disadvantage at schools not eligible for this funding will now miss out on this financial support. It is not clear why families who have a Health Care Card are no longer eligible to receive support that helps reduce costs of schooling, yet families that do not experience financial hardships will receive a $100 rebate at kindergarten level.
VCOSS has developed an alternative model to the EMA that continues to provide targeted and individualised support to eligible low-income families to assist them to meet the costs of education. The funding would go directly to schools but parents would retain choice about how funds are allocated. This model promotes accountability and transparency and has a clear goal of supporting families and enabling all students to participate in education. For more detail on the EMA issue visit the Cover the Costs website.
Employment is a key election issue. The Coalition has announced a $75 million scheme providing incentives to businesses to employ young people aged 15-24 who have been unemployed for at least six months, and who are not enrolled in full-time education or training. Businesses will receive $2000 grants to assist with recruitment and start-up costs. Further detail is required to better understand how this scheme will operate and how it links with the Employment Start Up for Business program, which gives small to medium businesses up to $4,000 to assist them to employ unemployed young people.
Victoria’s youth unemployment rate is around 15 per cent, its highest level in 15 years. Parts of Victoria including Geelong, Bendigo, Warrnambool, Shepparton and the north-west suburbs of Melbourne experience youth unemployment rates of almost 20 per cent. Long-term unemployment leaves young people at greater risk of long-term poverty. Support needs to kick in early and help young people engage in education and training as well as employment.
Since 2010 the federally funded Youth Connections program has been highly successful in assisting vulnerable young people to transition through education and into work. It provides the intensive, case managed support that helps vulnerable young people become job-ready. In Victoria about 4,600 young people receive support through Youth Connections. The Federal Government has cut all funding for this program, leaving a significant gap in services for young people in Victoria. Whichever party wins the 2014 State Election will have to develop a range of education, training and workforce initiatives to meet the growing needs of Victoria’s young people.