When a non-verbal seven-year-old boy with autism and Down syndrome walked unnoticed out of his Western Australian after-school care and into a stranger’s back yard last year, the shockwaves reverberated throughout the education and childcare sectors.
They’re still being felt. The provider involved has been hit with stringent commercial penalties that are impacting its business not only at a State level but nationally as well.
Worryingly, it wasn’t a one-off. Examples of these incidents abound; most recently allegations that two five-year-olds left two separate centres unsupervised in July and August.
None of this should be coming as a surprise to anyone who has watched the evolution of the Australian OOSH (Out of School Hours) care sector over the past decade or so, according to Vicki Prout, development director of before and after-school care provider Sherpa Kids Australia.
Part of the issue is that while new laws, regulations and administrative requirements are forcing long overdue change on the sector, very little has had to change in the way OOSH or OSHC (Outside School Hours Care) services are actually delivered, according to Ms Prout.
“Rampant consolidation within the sector has resulted in larger and larger groups of children being placed into single service provision centres, with very little in the way of structured supervision,” she said.
Behind this trends lies a seemingly insatiable demand for this type of child care. Commonwealth reports show that in 2013 there were 100,000 more children in OOSH care (335,000) than in 2004 (225,000). More than two-thirds of that growth (66,950) occurred after September 2010 and demand for after-school care providers continues to outstrip supply in most areas.
“Aussie mums and dads are desperate for good quality, affordable OOSH care,” Ms Prout said. “These days both carers are likely to be employed and working longer hours than ever. And, where extended families exist, potential carers are often too far away to help with before school care or after school activities.”
Ms Prout says volunteer-managed OOSH or OSHC committees are struggling with the issue of out of school care in the face of new regulatory reforms that increase quality expectations but also increase administrative burdens.
“The nett result is that senior educators are looking for a better way and OOSH service providers are frequently an attractive option.”
Which brings the story full circle, back to Ms Prout’s view that consolidation within the industry has got to the point where it’s causing problems.
“We’ve been saying consistently over recent years that the the business of out of school care in Australia is in need of a really good dusting,” she said.
“This is a stale sector of the child care market. Some of the more established providers have been around for decades and the rut they’re in is both deep and long. In many cases they’ve degenerated into little more than a corporate baby-sitting service.”
This is where the rot starts, according to Ms Prout.
“It’s just not good enough to chuck a few toys and some balls at a couple of hundred kids and tell them to go off and play. Of course a few of them are going to find a hole in a fence somewhere and go walkabout. It’s entirely predictable.”
It’s also preventable, she says. But first real structural change needs to happen in the way OOSH services are tendered and commissioned.
“The big players are now doing their thing on an almost industrial scale. So when they come to tender for a service at any given school they can pretty much buy their way in by way of shovelling much of their fee right back at the school in the form of a ‘financial contribution’.
“Of course principals and OOSH committees are going to look really carefully at these attractive financial models. But, as with most things, there’s a trade-off. And in our sector that’s the large volume, unstructured environment I was talking about earlier.”
Sherpa Kids continues to push at the tendering door of the public education system but Ms Prout says most of the company’s growth is happening in the private or church school arena. The ‘financial contribution’ doesn’t appear to be as much of an imperative here and decision-makers are focussed as much on quality and structure as on the financials of the relationship.
The feedback Sherpa Kids is getting from schools is that carers and teachers are becoming “a bit leery and twitchy” about the industrialisation of OOSH.
“They’re now almost instinctively looking around for something more personalised, structured and responsive – and more in tune with school curricula.”
Sherpa Kids Australia has answered this demand with a formula that it says gives schools and communities the best of all worlds. It’s an innovative approach: syllabus-led and structured care provided by members of local communities on a franchise basis.
The focus is on independent local ownership, backed by strong central quality control and guidance.
Services are provided by the franchisees but delivered by fully trained and qualified staff. Activities are highly structured and aligned to complement what the children are being taught in school.
“What’s cool about it is, because our service providers are local to the communities they serve, they can work closely with teachers and families alike to personalise the service they provide and react to anything that’s going on at a school or community level,” Ms Prout said.
So with the business of caring for kids so heavily regulated, centrally-procured, ruthlessly competitive, physically demanding and emotionally draining, what could possibly be the motivation for these franchisees to get involved?
“I get a buzz out of knowing that I’m providing a much-needed service not only for the working mums and dads of my community but also for the children themselves,” says Mick Rasmussen, who runs a Sherpa Kids service in Narellan, NSW.
“It’s a way of becoming involved with the community while also earning an income. And when I’m feeling a little pressured I just have to look at the smiles on those childrens’ faces to remember what the attraction was in the first place.
“Any teacher will know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a very different way to spend the working day.”
Mr Rasmussen said he feels the greatest buzz when she hears children at his Sherpa Kids service talk about how they actually want to be there.
“That, and positive feedback from grateful carers and care-givers. There’s no better feeling. Truly.”
What are the big trends in OOSH and how will these impact teachers and families? Vicki Prout is quick with the answer.
“It’s around change in when and where OOSH services are offered.
“Why? Because these elements offer the greatest scope for disruption in a sector which has become relatively staid and uninspiring. At the moment, many OOSH services are delivered in school facilities. But providers frequently struggle to meet demand because they are restricted by the space that is allocated to them
“A school might have 500 pupils in it during the day but because we can’t use many of the classrooms after hours it’s creating a bottle-neck.”
As a result, some providers are starting to think outside the square. Sherpa Kids Australia is already investigating the potential for establishing play cafes, for example, or using business premises and public venues like community halls that are closer to where carers work, or more convenient in some other way.
“It’s all part of this drive away from industrialised OOSH care, towards a service that is more personalised, convenient and can cater for growing demand not only from families but also from schools.”
British novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It’s entirely possible that today’s OOSH landscape will be unfamiliar territory to people a generation from now. Particularly if people like Vicki Prout and her team at Sherpa Kids Australia have anything to do with it.