Walking into the Summer Hill Childcare Centre, it's clear that the children and workers alike are busy and happy. I went to meet the centre's director, Roberta de Souza, to find out more about child care in the inner west of Sydney.
Sitting among the children, who range from three to five years old, de Souza was critical of government policy, which she said undervalues childcare workers.
“It supports nurses, fire fighters, ambulance drivers. But we are also providing an important service – to future adults.”
Research shows that zero to eight years are the most important time for language and learning, but childcare workers are still being paid as if they were babysitters.
She makes it her business to satiate the children's appetite for inquisitiveness and learning by taking her classes on excursions to the Opera House, the Blue Mountains and the Sydney Theatre Company. She’s even taken them to “experience Yum Cha” in Chinatown. She had just returned from a visit to the museum at the University of Sydney when I visited.
De Souza said there was a shortage of qualified childcare workers because “most early childcare teachers end up leaving and going to schools”. They cannot survive in pre-school care. “We are not ‘baby sitters’. We are educators.”
“We want to provide quality care, but it's very hard without teachers and teachers will leave the industry if their pay isn't improved.”
Parents know the importance of good child care, and when a centre has a reputation like de Sousa’s the waiting list grows and grows. The not-for-profit centre has a waiting list of 400 people. It only has space for 25.
United Voice union has launched a campaign for early childcare educators to receive professional wages. The “Big Steps” campaign plans to build a coalition of educators, parents and community members to make it a central issue in the next year's election.
“By accepting low wages, dedicated educators and directors are subsidising the sector and making early childhood education ‘affordable’. We can’t continue to do that”, the union says.
The inner west is bursting with young families – where parents are mostly professionals – and there are not enough childcare places to meet demand. De Souza said she is totally opposed to the federal government’s subsidisation of private childcare centres. “Why can’t the government subsidise community sector wages instead?”
“When we lost the operational subsidy [under the John Howard Coalition government in 1997], things started to get really hard.”
The federal Labor government had started the pro-privatisation push in 1989 by extending the childcare subsidy to the private sector. This led to a huge growth in private centres. A 2010 report from the Office of Early Childhood Education and Child Care said 64% of childcare centres were privately run.
“We cannot compete with the ABC Learnings of the world, or other childcare multinationals. For community-based centres, funding is critical,” de Souza said.
Various prospective councillors in the inner-west have declared childcare a priority. But councils only support a handful of early childhood centres, and increasingly point people to long day care, also privatised.
“There are simply not enough community based childcare centres in the inner-west because properties are just too expensive ... This is crazy.”
De Souza said quality child care was important for women as well. “There are a lot of tertiary educated women living in the inner west – and most are in the workforce, or have been.
“When women stay at home looking after their babies and children, they are penalised for not being in work – they miss out on promotions. But many want to work, as well as be mothers. And why shouldn't they?”
The Socialist Alliance supports the United Voice Big Steps campaign and free, quality child care. Councils should fund community not-for-profit child care and campaign for more state government funding, and oppose the creeping privatisation of the sector.
[Pip Hinman is a Socialist Alliance candidate for Wali in the Marrickville council elections on September 8.]