Calls are growing for early childhood education to move away from the for-profit model, and make it accessible to all as a right. Such a move would benefit the children and their parents, and early education workers.
The United Workers Union (UWU), which covers staff in the early childhood education and care sector, is warning that a premature end to the federal government’s emergency funding to the sector could cost thousands of jobs and threaten the viability of early learning centres.
A review into the federal government’s “free” childcare scheme was released on May 19. The scheme, in place since April 2, involved $1.6 billion over three months to pay 50% of childcare centres’ usual fees, based on February enrolments. Childcare centres were prohibited from charging families an out-of-pocket fee; they relied on the JobKeeper wage-subsidy scheme to recoup costs, while also having to restrict the numbers of children in care.
Federal education minister Dan Tehan has announced that the plan had “done its job”, as a majority of for-profit services had remained open. Three quarters of providers said the emergency response had helped, although a quarter who were not eligable for any subsidy said it had not.
Family day care workers have been left to struggle alone, with only some being able to access JobKeeper, and many others being left out of pocket.
Some have argued that the “free” childcare that was being offered was the federal government’s attempt to help the for-profit sector as at least half of all childcare services (including out of school hours care and family daycare operations) are private for profit businesses.
The childcare subsidy scheme will end on June 28 and the UWU is worried that the sector is in danger of imminent collapse.
UWU director for early childhood education Helen Gibbons said on May 19 that “urgent funding” was needed. “If emergency support for early learning ends before the economy and the community bounces back, enrolments will once again plummet and centres and staff will be left reeling.”
She said the “funding arrangements haven’t been perfect” but that the solution is to work with the sector “to fix the issues”. Gibbons said that an increase in enrolments should be accompanied by an increase in government funding. She also said that now was a good time to examine whether this “essential service is doing the job it is supposed to do”.
Early childhood education workers have told the UWU that they are already facing cuts to their hours, and many have been stood down. Workforce stress is extensive. A “topsy turvy funding arrangement with no predictability” will only make matters worse.
Labor Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Development Amanda Rishworth said a return to the child care subsidy (CCS) system would be “a huge financial hit to families” and may cause parents to unenrol their children which, in turn, would threaten the viability of providers. The work activity and income tests of the CCS model would also make it difficult for many families to access care during an economic downturn, she said.
Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi said the sector needed a complete overhaul. Early childhood education is an essential service and needs to be available to anyone “not just those who can afford it”. Faruqi said free access to education and care has been “a huge step forward” for families under lockdown, and it should be made permanent.
She also called on the government to expand the public operation of childcare. “Free childcare, hand-in-hand with a fair and decent wage for workers in the sector, benefits everyone,” Faruqi said.
Jay Weatherill, spokesperson for an early childhood education initiative Thrive by Five, has also called on the government to embrace free child care, arguing that universal access would give all children access to valuable early learning, boost workforce participation and generate employment. A return to the for-profit CCS system will push out families who cannot afford fees and further threaten centres’ viability.
Critics of the private childcare industry say the federal government’s subsidies were aimed at providing emergency relief to operators, even though it was sold publicly as “free childcare”.
According to 2019 figures compiled by Bank West, the private childcare sector is growing because of the “increased government expenditure on subsidies and childcare services”. It notes that in West Australia, childcare services grew by 27% over the past four years. It noted that federal funding for childcare fee assistance was expected to rise by 11% to $8 billion in the year to June 2019, and by nearly 33% over four years to $9.5 billion in 2022.
Coming out of lock down, many more are asking why public funds should be used to boost the profits of the largely profitable private childcare industry?
They say that the system in which the federal government is spending at least $10 billion on childcare subsidies to prop up a significantly privatised system has to radically change.
Figures compiled for the 2019 World Economic Forum show that Australia has the fourth most expensive childcare system in the world, after New Zealand, Britain and the United States. A couple with two young children, earning the average wage, have to devote around 30% of their income towards childcare.
Education and care advocate Lisa Bryant writing in the May 20 Guardian said there needed to be a “system that really works to enable women, as the primary carers of children to fully participate in the workforce, that isn’t subsidised on the backs of the labour of its largely female, and grossly underpaid, workforce”.
A childcare system that is geared for shareholders, landlords and private equity investors to profiteer does not provide the best education and care.
“A gazillion pieces of research exist that say universal access to early education is the missing key,” Bryant said, “especially when it is delivered by highly qualified and well-trained educators. When that early education is being provided to children, it can be accompanied by care in such a way that enables parents to participate in the workforce.”
Childcare should not only be free, it should be an extension of a public education system. Kindergarten and after-school care are already an essential attachment to the state school network, so why not extend public schooling to include the earliest years of childhood, she asked.