On Sunday morning I chaired a session at an early childhood education conference with two NSW state politicians, Labor’s Kate Washington and the Greens member for Newtown, Jenny Leong.
The conversation was broad-ranging and we discussed planning, oversupply, shortages, rising fees, regulation, affordability, quality and the persistent undervaluing of the work that early childhood educators undertake.
I am familiar with these issues and yet the conversation reminded me how incoherent the framework for early education and care is in this country.
So often solutions have been piecemeal, in effect, focusing on one issue at a time. Subsidies are aimed at affordability, and while the government is now providing more assistance than ever with childcare subsidies, the price for parents haven’t come down substantially. And the wages of educators haven’t – on the whole – jumped considerably.
The National Quality Framework is aimed at delivering quality, a critical objective, but guidelines that run to 600-plus pages for centres that are already squeezed are unwieldy to implement.
The division of responsibility between federal and state governments, as ever, adds a layer of complexity that makes accountability fuzzy. No single government is fully responsible for tackling the issue as a whole.
There is no oversight, for example, from a planning perspective to ensure new childcare centres are approved to open in locations where there is a shortage. Rather in some areas new centres are approved where there is already an oversupply, which simply puts existing centres under increased pressure. And in other areas where there is a shortage, centres aren’t opening.
This was all whirring away in the back of my mind when I caught an Uber from the city to head home after the session was over.
The driver mentioned he was having a quiet morning which was disappointing because on a Sunday it needs to be busy to make it financially viable, but also to make it worthwhile for him not to be with his family.
We got talking and I asked how long he had been driving. Two years, he said. He had been with a major bank for 9 years, in a variety of IT roles, but he was made redundant in 2015. Employment was hard to find and it was very stressful because they had just gone down to one income – his – because his wife had just had their second child.
Just before that baby arrived, his wife had resigned because the hour and a half commute to her workplace was not going to be feasible to consider with two small children.
He started driving for Uber as a stopgap but it’s been two years and he hasn’t got another permanent role, which isn’t for lack of applications.
A lot of IT roles, he said, have been sent offshore so finding work has been hard. The good news is his wife has a full-time job which is Monday to Friday.
He looks after their two sons during the week and then works nights and weekends, which means there is very little time together as a family.
The cost of childcare means that unless he is offered more than $50K a year, no job is worth it.
He asked if I knew how expensive childcare was. I explained that I was familiar with it on account of having small children, but also on account of the work I do. I said I had actually just been discussing that very issue at a conference.
He nearly pulled the car over. A conference about childcare? He asked.
A smile broke out across his face as I said yes.
“Is there going to be a solution from it? Could that be possible?” He turned around to face me as we stopped at a set of lights and the hope in his eyes was palpable.
How I wish my answer was yes.
I know personally and academically that the cost of childcare in Australia is a very real barrier for many families. I also know, personally and academically, that the cost of living is similarly limiting.
I know that working in the gig economy means there is no annual leave, no sick leave and no regular pay cheques if you need to have time off. I know the pressure on families and households is immense. I know that not having family nearby to help is particularly hard in that situation.
I know all of these things and yet it didn’t stop my heart from sinking upon hearing this father of two explain his family’s situation. He wasn’t looking for pity. We just got talking and it was obvious these issues were alive in his heart and his mind.
How could they not be?
He loves being with his children during the week and neither he or his wife particularly want their boys in full-time care, even if they could afford it. But the precariousness of not having permanent employment – and the relative security that provides – is hard. Having to leave the house at nights and on the weekends is hard. Not having any time with the whole family together is hard.
There just has to be a better way, he said to me. Where parents can work and still be around for their children.
He asked if I knew that in some countries childcare costs $400 for a whole month. Isn’t that amazing?
It really really is. Having good quality, affordable childcare is not just critical for children’s education and socialisation, it is a critical starting point for families.
The conference and the drive home on Sunday reminded me that there is no another policy area where the human upside is so vast. Tinkering around the edges will not suffice when wholesale change is needed.