Amanda from Adelaide’s personal
experiences of an ABC Learning Centre in Wayville, SA, (Yesterday, Item 3) has triggered a wide response from Crikey readers:



Karen Williams writes:

I
was part of a childcare company that was “merged” with ABC Learning
back in 2003. The conditions for the staff changed dramatically. Staff
not only had to clean the building within their “caring” time, but they
also had to do the gardening. Is it any wonder that children have
escaped from centres while staff are busy weeding the lawn and cleaning
the toilets? Reports came to us that staff were bullied to sign an AWA
and treated poorly if they did not. Staff within ABC are not allowed to
attend any external training or meetings run by external agencies, ie
their local council children’s services, Department of Human Services,
Lady Gowrie Child Centre training, Kindergarten Parents Victoria
conferences, etc, etc. ABC train all their staff in-house through
correspondence with their QLD ‘college’ (Qualifications?). The
underlying feeling is that this is to ensure that ABC staff have no
outside contact to see what is happening in the sector and garner any
support and also not to tell others what is really going on. Managers
at the centres were asked to hold petty cash in their own personal
accounts and withdraw from them when told to, to ease bank fees, and
some other technicality to do with the finances of the individual
centres. Having been a senior manager within our publicly listed
company I was under no illusion that the priority of any publicly
listed company is to their shareholders. Best practice means best
profit. True quality educational programs can not be run within the
limited budgets provided. ABC can run centres on these budgets and keep
them churning over, but that does not mean that children within these
centres are receiving the best care available from staff whose priority
should be to look after their social, emotional, physical and
educational needs. I would never put a child of mine in a
corporatised-publicly listed company’s childcare centre, ABC’s or
anyone else’s. The priority of any children’s service has to be the
children not the bottom line.

Matthew Smith writes:
My kids go there and I think they’re really good.

A reader writes:
I
have twins who are almost three. Their first childcare centre
experience was with ABC Sydney Central in Kent Street. We were told a
number of things before accepting places which were absolutely
incorrect. We were absolutely assured that our babies (16 month old
girls who were born eight weeks early, so effectively just over one)
would be kept to their own routine of mealtimes and two sleeps. We were
told their carer ratio was better than most centres and that they
provided a caring environment with qualified carers and a structured
routine. The last bit about routine was right, but the rest was not. Within
48 hours our children were exhausted and sick. The centre ran to a
completely fixed schedule that did not accommodate the fact that our
children needed more sleep than the routine provided for the group they
were in (0-2). I expected them to be ill initially but I did not expect
the carers to contribute to the problem by using the same tissue for my
two children’s runny noses (one of whom had contagious conjunctivitis).
I also expected our kids would get less than one on one care, but I did
not expect my children to be left to cry without appropriate response
from any of the adults in the room. When I attempted to discuss these
issues with the room leader she was so perturbed by my feedback that
she talked over me, would not listen, and refused to accept that I was
in fact told that my kid’s routine would be accommodated and that I was
being told different rules about illness and it’s management by each
carer. In the end she said “we have so many kids we have to stick with
that routine, and no, we can’t accommodate your children’s routine”.
She had also left the centre within the next six months. It was
another six months before one of my kids was down to one sleep, and
their new child care centre had absolutely no problem accommodating
their needs. Nor have I ever seen children crying in the new centre,
uncomforted, the way I did at ABC. We withdrew our children
after two weeks and refused to pay the cancellation fee, but felt
strongly enough to threaten legal recourse if they persisted in asking
us to pay it. Judging by the number of times I’ve been sent a new
invoice for the fee in the one and half years since then, they’ve had
three new centre directors since then. I get cranky and upset
just thinking about them, the way my children were treated, and the
promises they held out before we started compared to the reality if
running a centre where cost control is more important than children’s
happiness.

A subscriber writes:
Our
son goes to a Defence Childcare Centre that is run by ABC. Ours is
obviously the exception – they have a kitchen with kitchen staff, they
supply everything (nappies, sunscreen, all meals including breakfast
etc.) There are some very highly qualified staff (for childcare) – our
room leader has a B. Ed and Diploma of Teaching. They are building a
new centre that the kids should move to later this year. My son is
receiving great care, the carers are great, and he loves it. Now, maybe
this is because it is a Defence Centre (ABC runs all the Defence
Centres – that would be a contract worth looking at) or maybe it is
terrible behind the scenes, I am not sure. This is a real issue for
many Australians – we have to cop flak for putting our kids in
full-time daycare, yet we are also expected to be full-time productive
working (as in paid work) members of society. And not all mothers want
to stay at home full-time. I am in the fortunate position that I have
been able to shift from full-time work to part-time work, but very few
people are in that position – it is long hours or no hours at all, at
least if you are going to be in a job where you can afford childcare.
Okay, ABC is acting like a soulless, corporate giant, but the situation
came about for a reason.

Another subscriber writes:
Our
experience with ABC was anything but positive. We had been sending our
two children to a lovely day care in the inner-west of Brisbane for
many years. The director was brilliant, approachable and highly
experienced as were the great staff. They always received a brilliant
cooked lunch from a wonderful cook, which my children thought was
great. During the last year of our youngest’s attendance, the day care
was taken over by ABC and changes occurred immediately. The Director
resigned (or as one staff member put it, “she was pushed”), highly
experienced and long term staff hours were cut back considerably and
started to leave, the cook was sacked immediately and our child only
received very ordinary sandwiches for lunch, which did not fill his
appetite, which was obvious as when we picked him up each afternoon he
was always very, very hungry, which previously was never the case. And
naturally the fees went up. The new director never returned phone calls
and was never available. The staff replacing the highly experienced
staff, were inexperienced and were nowhere near as dedicated, and
staff turn over seemed to be quite high, as there was new staff coming
and going all the time. Lucky for us our youngest was soon to start
school, but we really felt for the other parents who were left behind,
because there was no other alternative than ABC as they had not long
taken over Peppercorn as well as other smaller day cares in the area.

Siobhan Curran writes:
I am currently on maternity leave and take part in an online community forum for mums and mums-to-be at www.bubhub.com.au. There are several interesting threads discussing child care, but this recent one relates specifically to ABC. As you can see, there it is a very topical debate. Several
mums that use bubhub also participated in SBS’s Insight program last
night which discussed /debated child care issues in Australia.
An ABC representative was also part of the forum, as well as Mal Brough
the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (I
thought Family and Community Services would be enough for one minister
to look after, but then it’s not like you need more politicians
right?). From what I understand there is a repeat of the discussion
this Friday at 1pm and next Monday at 2pm.

Naomi Parry writes:
My
childcare centre (in Katoomba NSW) was privately owned and operated,
always with a very high focus on quality care and programming for
children’s individual needs. When the owner became ill my centre was
sold to Peppercorn then absorbed into the Groves Empire. Apparently I’m
one of those who has ‘chosen’ ABC but nothing could be further from the
truth. Fact is, childcare consumers don’t have choices, particularly
not in areas where there are shortages, or when your child is aged 0-2.
I’ve been watching the changes with interest. On the plus side, the
centre has been spruced up and repainted. The accounting system doesn’t
seem too bad – three different accounting systems in two years was
confusing but we’re OK now. On the down side, the staff are uncertain
about their futures, and know that Eddie Groves fought their recent
award rise. They remain anxious about liability issues, as Groves
contested vicarious liability in that Victorian case of the wandering
toddler. The Director has lost the ability to set the curriculum or
choose activities. Instead she’s much more an admin officer. The staff
stay because they like working as a team and because there is limited
opportunity for alternative employment in the mountains, not because
they are happy with ABC. Although the centre is bright and shiny, no
new toys have been provided. Children’s sun hats used to be provided
every year, but no more. Now you are expected to buy ABC hats, ABC
drink bottles, ABC T-shirts, ABC staff badges, read the ABC magazine
and use the ABC loyalty card.
Uncle Toby’s is a sponsor and I
noticed just the other day that the centre has been given their muesli
bars to dole out to kids if their lunches are insufficient or
unappealing (we provide our own food). I was never asked if I wanted my
child to be given muesli bars – it seems a weird thing to be cross
about but I consider them junk food. A friend who worked in an ABC
centre in Sydney said they were encouraged to talk positively about
Uncle Tobys and tell children it was high quality food (as if
television product placement wasn’t bad enough). I hate the fact that
my childcare fees reward shareholders in a huge for-profit conglomerate
that doesn’t give a rat’s a*se about staff conditions and entitlements.
I would have my child out of there in a flash if not for the fact that
he has just 7 months to go before he starts school. If I withdrew him
it would sever his connection with terrific carers who have looked
after him since he was five months old, and from his lifelong friends.
He doesn’t notice the changes, so I’ve decided to put my personal
ideology aside. But I will be very happy to leave ABC behind, and the
next child is not going to an ABC Centre, not if there’s a choice. I
will miss the lovely women who have helped me care for my son for four
years, but I just can’t do it.

Lynda in Sydney writes:
I would put
it to you that the reason more and more parents are sending their
children to ABC Learning centres is that there are fewer and fewer
places elsewhere. ABC Learning is snapping up independently-owned
centres at an amazing pace. One oft-figure quoted is that within a
decade this company will own one-fifth of all child care spaces.
Parents are usually forced to take the first child care spot that is
offered, they don’t get to shop around and choose the best,
unfortunately. My personal contact with ABC Learning centres (one in
Sydney’s inner west) was that I took my son there when he was
two-and-a-half. He was admittedly slightly more difficult than many
children: had slightly delayed speech (was seeing a speech
pathologist), was very attached to me, didn’t eat much and took a
bottle before naps. The ABC learning director assured me none of this
would be a problem and he would be given quality care, asking for (and
receiving) copious notes on his habits. I took him for three days. Not
once did a carer welcome him to the centre or try to distract him when
I was leaving, meaning I had to prise him, screaming, off my leg while
getting out of there and leave him alone and crying. All three days
they phoned me at lunchtime and told me he wouldn’t go for a nap, could
I pick him up? On the third day I asked if he had been given his
bottle. No, the “carer” replied. We asked him if he wanted it and he
didn’t reply. Possibly because, as we patiently explained, he didn’t talk.
We didn’t return. A friend’s child who attended the same centre at the
same time was forced to start toilet training, against the parents’
wishes. That and a raft of other concerns meant they also moved on.
Both children are now happily ensconced in other centres – one
council-run and one private – so it’s not a case of impossible children
or over-protective parents. Just inexperienced staff in a company that
puts profits above all else. I am yet to hear of a good-news story out
off one of their centres and I want to scream every time I see one of
their advertisements on TV (incidentally, they must be the only child
care service in Australia that needs to advertise – most have
ridiculously long waiting lists).

Stephen & Anna Shannon write:
The reason why more and more parents are choosing ABC Learning
Centres is that in small towns like ours they are buying out existing
centres and taking over the towns like a cancerous growth. While our
one ABC centre here (soon to be two ABC centres when a new one opens in
July) is run by very caring dedicated people you can see the corporate
focus on profits not caring for kids creeping in on a daily basis. The
staff turnover has been quite high which isn’t good for the kids. I
would prefer not to send my kids to an ABC Centre but like so many
small towns in Australia now we have no other choice.

Marilyn Orrock, Lecturer in Health Services Management, writes:
I sold my few ABC shares when I saw Mr Groves on the television.

Peter Fray

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