Sir – I am an ex-MacDonnell Shire employee. My experience regarding the shire and their delivery of the Early Childhood education program in the Ikuntji / Haasts Bluff community has been appalling. The shire are supposed to be working for the people [who] want to make the decisions about what happens to their own children. Nobody needs or wants the shire to do it for them. The shire recently made changes to the provision of “Children’s Services” and “Youth Development” programs across their communities. These changes were made by the shire in their Alice Springs head office with no community consultation.
Funding was applied for and approved by DEEWR prior to the community even being informed about the changes. They involve moving the children aged 5-12 from “Youth Development” to “Children’s Services” and are against the wishes of the community, staff and team leaders in the Ikuntji community, where I live and was (until recently) employed as Team Leader of Children’s Services.
I was hired by the shire under the guise of mentoring and supporting the childcare staff in all the aspects of running a successful childcare centre where I was already volunteering. I was also informed that we would be working towards meeting the requirements for the new National Quality Standards set by ACECQA for childcare services.
Before commencing working, I was told that “two way learning,” working with the community and community specific involvement, were of extreme importance in this job, which I was very happy and excited about. I developed strong, productive relationships and friendships with the staff, many who have worked in childcare for very long periods of time. Every day I was learning more and more about the culture, language, education and child raising practices of the community and I was helping teach the staff what I had learnt about early childhood education through University study.
We were learning from each other however, when it came down to it, MacDonnell Shire simply wanted a one size fits all approach, designed in head office from people who have spent no to very little time in communities and none at all in the Ikuntji community.
I was employed by the shire in April. I received one day of “training” in Alice Springs where very little information was provided to me and it mostly consisted of signing forms stating that I would not discuss my opinions of the shire or policies outside of the shire, or with other areas of the shire.
I returned to Ikuntji / Haasts Bluff and received very little support from my “Support and Development Officer” in Alice Springs who was responsible for this community and three others. During the fove months I was employed by the shire, our centre received about four visits from this “Support and Development Officer” who has very little experience/qualifications in Early Childhood.
These visits were each for a maximum of two hours.
I was not able to order any learning resources for the centre. I was told various excuses, such as that I was on a “spending block”, budgets needed to be approved etc for the entire time. The centre had hardly any resources and almost everything we did have was donated to us from individuals or other organisations. The shire policies for children’s services were only provided to our centre in August. These policies were developed in Alice Springs and are not culturally appropriate or responsible. One such policy stated that children weren’t to be identified as “boy” or “girl” but their names only were to be used.
This does not suit the cultural identity of the community as first names can be very private; “boy” and “girl” (their Luritja forms) are used often on community to call out to children to identify them and request their attention. Most of the children will respond much more strongly to this than to their own first names. There are many such policies which are obviously based on a mainstream centre in urban Australia and do not suit community life or the Luritja culture.
The MacDonnell Shire structure can be seen as metaphor for the massive wealth gap between rich and poor. Every single Indigenous staff member in childcare, as well as the majority of the other services are paid the minimum hourly rate payable by the shire. I was trying to advocate a raise for one particular staff member who has been working at the childcare centre for over 10 years. She is still being paid the minimum rate.
After asking management repeatedly, I was told that there simply “wasn’t the budget” for any raises in community. All of the management and “support” staff in Alice Springs recently gave themselves promotions and massive pay raises. This can only be described as a disgustingly racist. This money needs to be going to the communities. The NQS requirements state that staff must have or be working towards specified qualifications. Some staff at Ikuntji were carrying out training when the community council was in power. They are willing to continue to undertake this training and have requested more training several times since the shire took over the centre in 2008. No childcare or first aid training has been provided to child care centre staff at Ikuntji since.
People have told me that life under the shire is similar to life under a superintendent in the 1970s. That alone must show that a serious change is needed urgently.
The shire responds:-
It is always disappointing when a disgruntled ex employee for personal reasons misrepresents the practices and intent of a quality early childhood program.
Employment: MacDonnell Shire Children’s Services employ local indigenous staff in all our communities and as highlighted in the letter we are proud that one of the indigenous staff in Ikuntji has been working with the service for 10 years and the Shire since formation. In fact the staff member referred to has been operating the service with 100% indigenous staff prior to the author’s employment.
Working conditions are generous and significantly higher than industrial requirements. For example, every staff member receives generous cultural leave entitlements and automatic above inflation increases every year (and has since the Shire was formed).
National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care: As research supports, the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical years of development: physically, emotionally and cognitively. With the support of DEEWR, MacDonnell Shire delivers Early Childhood Education programs in nine communities and due to the success of our programs has recently been awarded a tenth community. We are keen to ensure that quality improves through the implement of the National Quality Framework and as such we are actively recruiting qualified early childhood educators (the author working towards this qualification but not yet attained) to support and develop local staff in achieving qualifications.
Local Knowledge: The Support and Development Officer referred to has both lived and worked in the Ikuntji community and boasts both a Degree in Community Development and Early Childhood qualifications. In fact a much longer association with Ikuntji than the author.
Director Community Services