Evaluation of the Inclusion Support Program

Content type
Research report

December 2022


J. Rob Bray, Megan Carroll, Jennifer Baxter, Mikayla Budinski, Matthew Gray

Executive summary

The Inclusion Support Program (ISP) was introduced in July 2016 as an element of the Child Care Package. The program has a number of antecedents stretching back to the early 1980s. Some changes - a 'Refresh' of the guidelines - were made to the program in March 2020.

The objective of the program is to promote and support inclusive child care, addressing potential barriers to the full participation of children with additional needs with their peers. The program recognises that additional needs can result from a range of factors, including disability, which has been the historic focus of inclusion.

The ISP comprises a series of specific subsidies and support, managed by a contracted Inclusion Development Fund Manager and contracted state-based Inclusion Agencies which employ Inclusion Professionals who support services.

Since its introduction the program has significantly underspent its budget although the extent of this appears to have diminished.

Within the construct of inclusion 2 divergent approaches exist. One sees inclusion as an 'intrinsic' value, or right, of all children to participate equally, the other considers it as having an 'instrumental' role of improving the outcomes for children with additional needs. While the 2 approaches frequently involve similar practices, their motivations and how they are assessed vary.

Also relevant to inclusion are anti-discrimination practices and laws which are directed at preventing exclusion. Child care is, however, excluded from the Disability Standards for Education.

The tension in the concepts of inclusion can be seen in terms of services', parents' and inclusion professionals' different approaches to the role of child care in socialisation and in children learning how to fit in with others and with norms.

Internationally there is a growing reorientation of inclusion policies from a focus on equitable access of children with additional needs towards a more proactive role of early education and care as a strategy for addressing social exclusion and the needs of children facing disadvantage, and, in particular, in seeking to address education disadvantage.

Around 1 in 5 parents of a child with additional needs reported having to change child care because of issues with care. This is double the rate of those parents without such a child. The rate of actual exclusion experienced by parents with a child with additional needs is 4 times higher than that of those without. Parents of children with additional needs were less likely to report that it was easy to find quality care.

While services identify some groups of children for whom they need additional resources to effectively include, for many others a need for advice and support is seen as critical. Children who exhibit violence and disruptive behaviour are seen as being more difficult to include.

Survey based data on the relative participation of children with additional needs did not find any consistent significant differences in access, although this was subject to high sampling variability, while administrative data from the Family Tax Benefit system on children with a significant health or related condition suggests that, although varying by condition, participation was overall similar to those without such conditions.

Most services have a diversity of children, including children with additional needs, using their child care services. Services report positively on their commitment to inclusion and the use of inclusive techniques, including reporting a range of activities associated with the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and culture, and of children from culturally and linguistically different backgrounds. At the same time they express concern about meeting the needs of all children if a particular child needs intensive support. Inclusion Professionals, while overall agreeing that the quality of inclusion in services was good, or better, were less emphatic in their agreement. Also, while they rate inclusionary practice for children with disabilities, developmental delays and health conditions as adequate or better, it was seen less adequate for other children with additional needs, especially those with behavioural issues and who had experienced trauma.

There was general agreement that base levels of qualification of child care staff did not encompass inclusion adequately and that there was a need for, and strong interest in, professional development, although existing arrangements frequently made obtaining this difficult.

Specific issues arose in the Outside School Hours Care sector where qualification requirements and staffing ratios were lower and where management of behaviour, including absconding, as well as high personal care needs were seen as significant, especially when facilities were not appropriate for inclusive care.

There were significant differences in the relative use of ISP funding across services. The program was used disproportionately by Centre Based Day Care services, and there was an overall tendency for higher levels of program use in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, and lower use in Queensland, and, the Australian Capital Territory, as well as in remote and very remote locations. Usage was higher in the not-for-profit sector and amongst services rated more highly by the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA).

The Additional Educator subsidy is the main program element in 2020 accounting for almost 85 per cent of approvals. In 2019 around 1 in 3 Centre Based Day Care services and 1 in 5 Outside School Hours Care services received support from this program. Overall, this program stream was seen as effective, although there were issues around the adequacy of the rate of subsidy, and inflexibility of the program with regard to the number of hours a child was in care. Some issues were raised about the application process. These mainly related to portal and Strategic Inclusion Plan (SIP) matters, although for some services documentation posed challenges.

Immediate/Time Limited assistance was used much less frequently and, while more likely to be seen as operating 'adequately' rather than well, was, overall, viewed positively. The most common way of recruiting staff under this element was extending the working time of an existing staff member; however, a significant group of those who recruited beyond this reported some difficulty. The evaluation found that there was confusion and some inconsistency as to whether this support could be used as a bridge for the development of an Additional Educator subsidy.

Only some 25-35 subsidies are provided each year under the Family Day Care Top Up. A range of concerns were identified with this subsidy including its conceptual approach (as a top up when less than the allowed number of children were cared for), and the extent to which applications required significant effort by services who received no benefit.

Innovative Solutions Support assistance, which is a flexible funding stream based on proposals submitted by services, has ramped up over the duration of the ISP, in part reflecting changes as part of the 'Refresh'. There are very large differences between states in the rate at which services received this support, and in the types of activities for which assistance was provided. This has also varied over time. The application process was seen by many services as difficult, although this is attenuated, in many cases, by support from providers and Inclusion Professionals.

Strategic Inclusion Plans which assess a service's practice, and identify strategies to improve inclusion, are an integral part of the ISP. At end 2020, 69.0 per cent of Centre Based Day Care services, 51.1 per cent of Outside School Hours Care services and 38.8 per cent of Family Day Care services had a SIP. This represents increases of 20 to 30 percentage points on the rates in June 2017. There were, however, very large differences in the proportion of services with a SIP by state, and within states, by hub.

While SIPs were seen as useful, in part this also reflected their role as a pre-requisite for funding. There was a strong view by Inclusion Professionals that the SIP could be better designed and some agreement with this from services (although these were most frequently neutral on this question). On balance, while the 'barriers' approach was seen as useful, issues were raised including better integration with the National Quality Framework Quality Improvement Plans and making the SIP more effective as a day to day on the floor tool. A key barrier to the effectiveness of the SIP was the IT system. The structure of the SIP for Family Day Care Services was also seen as problematic.

Almost all services have had contact with an Inclusion Agency, with this proportion increasing over time, and there was an increased level of requests by services for support to the agencies. Key activities undertaken by Inclusion Professionals included support with the development of SIPs, support for funding applications, and assistance with the ISP portal. Over time there has, however, been an increase in contact which involves inclusion activities other than those associated with the Inclusion Development Fund. Central aspects of support provided included practical support and capacity building, although the evaluation found some marked differences in approaches to coaching and modelling. Most, 69.4 per cent, of services reported being very satisfied with their recent contact with an Inclusion Professional, and 16.9 per cent mostly satisfied. Satisfaction with support for high complexity cases was somewhat lower than that with regard to other supports.

Notwithstanding the obvious links between service quality and inclusion practices, there was in most states either no, or only occasional, contact by Inclusion Professionals with State/Territory Authorised Officers responsible for service assessment, and a general view by these professionals that the ACECQA quality ratings only partially reflected services which had good inclusion practices.

The final phase of the evaluation coincided with Inclusion Agencies moving to remote servicing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, this form of contact was seen as successful with some benefits around increased efficiency due to the elimination of travel time, and providing for innovative approaches such as being able to engage across a number of services. At the same time, the importance of face-to-face contact in establishing relationships was emphasised, along with limitations on being able to fully observe the environment and engage in some forms of mentoring and coaching. This suggests a hybrid approach.

Overall, the Inclusion Professionals considered that the Inclusion Agencies and the Inclusion Development Fund Manager operated effectively. The nature of the Departmental contracting was seen as an issue; in particular, around staff continuity.

In undertaking the evaluation; in particular, with regard to the program elements, the SIP, and the data from Inclusion Agencies, the evaluation identified a series of problems with the quality of data and the lack of integration of data systems.

Measures of success

The program had 8 specific measures of success identified in the guidelines. The evaluation found:

  • An increased number and participation of children with additional needs accessing services. In broad terms, participation by children with additional needs shifted with changes across the population as a whole. As noted, participation of children with significant health and disability conditions was consistent with their share of the population.
  • Increased awareness of inclusion support services available for families of children with additional needs. The evaluation noted that the structure of the ISP was one which mainly engaged services, with parents only becoming aware of the program if a service identified it as a strategy for their child.
  • Increased usage (hours) of care as a measure for parents' or carers' increased engagement with the workforce, study or training. While data on this was limited there was a trend towards increased hours of care for younger children and a decrease for older children.
  • An increased number of services embedding inclusion strategies and practices (i.e. an increased number of services with a Strategic Inclusion Plan). There has been a very marked increase in the proportion of services with a SIP.
  • An increase in knowledge, skills and confidence of educators in implementing inclusive strategies and practices (i.e. an increased capacity and capability to include children with additional needs). While baseline data was not available, survey responses showed increases in services' reported ability to meet the needs of key inclusion groups between 2018 and 2019. This trend was also reflected in other departmentally supported research.
  • Greater awareness among services about support provided by Inclusion Agencies. A measure of awareness is the extent to which services proactively approached the agencies. This increased from some 40 per cent of services in 2017 to 59.0 per cent in December 2020.
  • An increased number of services receiving support from Inclusion Agencies. The proportion of services contacted by Inclusion Agencies increased from some 90 per cent in 2017 to a reported 99.2 in the 6 months to December 2020, with particular gains in areas such as capacity building and practical support.
  • Improved assessment and rating for the elements relating to inclusion in the NQS. Overall, there have been quality improvements against the elements of NQS (National Quality Standards) related to inclusion, although this is impacted by structural changes. More specifically, longitudinal data on services shows a pattern of positive shifts from not-meeting to meeting particular standards.


Overall, the evaluation found that the program was supportive of inclusion of children with additional needs and is supported by stakeholders, although there are a number of aspects of the program which do require review, as does its broader context and focus.


The evaluation recommends that:

  1. The guidelines concerning the interim use of Immediate/Time Limited be clarified and reflect the actual way in which this support is used.
  2. Attention should be given to the introduction of more flexibility in the hours per week of support for the additional educator and Immediate/Time Limited Support to reflect different patterns of child care usage, and the rationale for the subsidy rate needs review.
  3. The Department should consult with providers, services and carers in the Family Day Care sector to consider more effective means of supporting inclusion in the sector as the Family Day Care Top-Up does not appear to be an effective mechanism.
  4. The processes for submitting Innovative Solutions Support proposals should be reviewed and simplified. The Department should more actively monitor the program including the balance of projects within and between states.
  5. The role of the Inclusion Agencies is important and should be maintained. It is noted that the IA role in the provision of support for the IT systems points to problems with these systems. While remote servicing can continue to play an important role in the post-COVID era, this should be as a balanced approach combined with face-to-face contact. There is scope for greater scrutiny of why there are variations between states and hubs in outcomes.
  6. The approach to Inclusion Agency tendering should be reviewed, potentially moving to 5-year contract periods, with decisions on the next contract being made a year before the expiry of the former.
  7. The Department should explicitly recognise the tensions in approaches to inclusion, and the wider question of the role of child care and support, and promote research into, and debate around, these questions and ensure that policies and practices are evidence based. Attention should also be given to the statement on priorities to ensure that the program is focused on priority needs and not a particular form of additional needs.
  8. The IT environment of the program should be reviewed with a focus on ensuring that access and navigation is simple so as to be able to be used by services without the need for external support. This review needs to ensure the development of an information system which is integrated across the domains of service quality; child care use; Inclusion Agency activities; the management of SIPs; and the provision of support under the ISP. This review should also feed into the development of appropriate internal monitoring and external reporting on the program.
  9. The SIP should be redeveloped based upon the expertise and experience of stakeholders, including consideration of how it can be integrated with the QIP (Quality Improvement Plan), and that the IT implementation should be redeveloped. Attention needs also to be given to the nature of SIPs for Family Day Care Services.
  10. The Department should review the need for more explicit attention to professional development as an integral component of the ISP and, in any future reviews of standards for child care provision, that the question of the level of qualifications, the extent to which qualifications should include effective coverage of inclusion matters, and the extent to which facilities need to be appropriate to achieving inclusion be considered.
  11. The Department and Inclusion Agencies should actively communicate to services their responsibilities under anti-discrimination legislation and engage with anti-discrimination bodies on strategies for better addressing discriminatory activity; and the exclusion of child care from the Disability Standards in Education should be removed.
  12. With the endorsement of Commonwealth and State Ministers more active links should be built between Inclusion Agencies and state Authorised Officers, including identifying mechanisms for an input into the NQF and into assessments of service quality.

Research team

Australian Institute of Family Studies

Jennifer Baxter, Mikayla Budinski, Megan Carroll, Kelly Hand, Cara Rogers and Diana Warren

Australian National University

J. Rob Bray and Matthew Gray

Social Policy Research Centre

Elizabeth Adamson, Megan Blaxland, Anna Jones, Ilan Katz and Jennifer Skattebol

Megan Bedford (Social Policy Research Centre) and Pam Muth (The Social Research Centre) have provided valuable research assistance.


The fieldwork for the Survey of Early Learning and Care Services (SELCS) was conducted by the Social Research Centre. The fieldwork team was managed by Leon Head (Wave 1), Alexandra Polichroniadis and Eugene Siow (Waves 2 and 3).


This evaluation was commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment (previously the Department of Education, Department of Education and Training).

The authors would like to acknowledge and thank all of those who participated in or assisted with this evaluation, including families and services as well as representatives of peak bodies and other organisations with an interest in the Child Care Package. We would note, in particular, the contribution of those services and Inclusion Professionals who responded to the, at times quite complex and time consuming, surveys which we have extensively drawn upon.

We also acknowledge the helpful assistance of staff from the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment for their continuing collaboration, guidance and support.

Featured image: © GettyImages/JohnnyGreig


Bray, J. R, Carroll, M., Baxter, J., Budinski, M., Gray, M., (2021). Evaluation of the Inclusion Support Program. (Research Report). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.