In July 2007, the Community and Disability Services Ministers' Advisory Council (CDSMAC) commissioned the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) to examine the feasibility of implementing the Children's Services National Minimum Data Set (CSNMDS).

The CSNMDS is a nationally agreed set of administrative data items which aim to provide answers to some of the key policy questions in relation to child care and preschool services in Australia. The CSNMDS has three components: Service, Worker/caregiver, and Child. A number of data items are included under each component and there are a total of 46 data items in the data set.

This feasibility study involved consultations with the Australian Government and state and territory government departments responsible for child care and preschools. Also included is a data mapping exercise to assess the extent to which existing data collected by these agencies have incorporated the data items, data concepts and definitions of the CSNMDS.

Consultations with the states and territories

The AIHW engaged Dr Robyn Sheen from Shina Consulting to undertake face-to-face consultations with the states and territories. These meetings took place between December 2007 and March 2008. The consultant found that although the CSNMDS has been signed off by CDSMAC in 2005-06, most states and territories have not systematically incorporated the data items of the CSNMDS into their own collections. Most jurisdictions also expressed the view that it is not feasible at this time to integrate the CSNMDS into their departmental collections. Four key reasons emerged from these discussions:

  • a lack of coordination between the community services and the education sectors on policy and data issues
  • a lack of resources (human and financial)
  • inability of the states and territories to collect child data from care providers because of legal constraints
  • a lack of national agreement on an approach to early childhood learning (policy and data).

The issue of provider load was also mentioned by a number of jurisdictions. However, all jurisdictions were in favour of the CSNMDS being retained. There was general agreement that if a national approach to early childhood learning was agreed, the CSNMDS would be a useful start in setting up nationally consistent data collection. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) was being looked to for an overall policy direction.

Data mapping exercise

The AIHW undertook the mapping exercise noted above and also examined the children's services data collection for the Report on Government Services (ROGS). The exercise found that:

  • States and territories use different ways to collect data from their children's services sector. Some jurisdictions rely solely on administrative by-product data collections, whereas others conduct annual service-based surveys or censuses.
  • There are significant differences across jurisdictions in the data coverage of the children's sector as a whole and also between the child care and preschool subsectors.
  • The degree of alignment to the CSNMDS varies substantially across the different state and territory collections. Although a number of CSNMDS data items have been incorporated into state and territory collections, this has not been done on a systematic basis.
  • Within collections, the degree of alignment to the CSNMDS also varies between the three components of the CSNMDS.
  • There is minimal alignment between the National Preschool Census in its current form and the CSNMDS.
  • If implemented across the Australian Government and state and territory government collections, the CSNMDS could be a useful source of consistent national data for some of the indicators currently reported in the children's services chapter of the Report on Government Services.

Consultation with Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations

The AIHW undertook the consultation with Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), which is the department responsible for child care and preschool at the Australian Government level. The consultation, which took place between May and September 2008, found that:

  • A significant proportion of the CSNMDS data items and definitions were incorporated into the 2006 Australian Government Census of Child Care Services (AGCCCS).
  • The AGCCCS will no longer be continued in its current form as a result of the implementation of the new Child Care Management System (CCMS).
  • Where applicable, CSNMDS data definitions were incorporated into the development of the CCMS. However, much of the data collected by the CCMS are being collected within the administration of A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999 and are therefore not available for external use.
  • The CCMS has a narrower scope than the AGCCCS. Some of the AGCCCS data items, such as those relating to Worker/caregiver, are not currently collected in the CCMS.
  • In order to satisfy the reporting requirement for the ROGS, a one-off small supplementary data collection was conducted in 2008. CSNMDS data definitions were incorporated in the supplementary data collection where appropriate.
  • The CCMS has good data-collection capability. It may be possible in future years to expand the scope of the CCMS (for example, to collect Worker/caregiver information). However, longer term direction of CCMS had not been decided at the time of the consultation.

Conclusion and the way forward

The Children's Services National Minimum Data Set (CSNMDS) is a set of tested, nationally agreed data items and standards that can form the 'core' of any new data collections for child care and preschools. If it is not feasible in the current environment to implement the CSNMDS as a separate collection, a staged or progressive incorporation of the CSNMDS data items into existing collections would still make significant improvements to national information over time, providing there is an agreed plan and mechanism to collate and report the data nationally.

If national data from the CCMS cannot be made available, it will take a significant amount of resources to expand and align the state and territory collections to a broadly common level, to enable the reporting of even part of the CSNMDS data items for the child care subsector.

A national agreement on the required data items, data collection responsibilities, the implementation of the CSNMDS data standards across existing collections, and national reporting by collating data from the CCMS and the other sources is a more effective and economic option.

For the way forward:

  • Ensure that CSNMDS data items that were signed off in 2005 meet the data needs of the current COAG policy.
  • Make a decision on whether to implement CSNMDS, either as a whole or in part. States and territories have signalled that they are looking to COAG for this overall policy direction.
  • If the decision on implementation is yes, develop a national CSNMDS implementation plan for child care and preschools that details data requirements, data collection, collation and national reporting arrangements and responsibilities. This implementation plan needs to be agreed to by the Australian Government and the state and territory governments.

Early childhood issues are high on the priority of the COAG agenda at present and the environment presents an ideal opportunity to discuss and implement national reporting on the CSNMDS.