Childcare is broken beyond repair and we need to start again | Women's Agenda

Childcare is broken beyond repair and we need to start again

Kate Ellis issued a fiery challenge to Australia yesterday during her address to the National Press Club – she asked if we were ready to unscramble the egg of childcare and early education and start again with a radically changed system.

The Shadow Minister for Early Education and Development described our early childhood education and care system as being “broken beyond immediate repair” and in its current form, “incapable of meeting the needs of Australian parents, our economy, government, the workforce that keeps it going, or most importantly, the children for whom it exists”.

She stated that the Government has spent the last three years debating technicalities rather than discussing  “how we best support Australian children’s development, Australian parents, or invest most successfully in our economic future.”

Her solution? A radical rethink involving solutions such as:

  • Abandoning the existing fee and subsidy system. Ms Ellis suggested that the current system allowed government no mechanisms to limit fees or to ensure that childcare places are where parents needed them. (She even pointed out that the Government knows where children are and should at the very least to be able to ensure early education and care places are where children are. 

  • The introduction of competitive tendering for early education and care delivery and capping the costs parents pay – working towards a situation where children are guaranteed a place at their local service, much the same way as happens at schools.

  • Extending universal access to preschool education to three year olds to ensure that Australia does not fall behind other countries – Ellis noted that many countries already provide this.

Ellis also suggested that the Australian Government could get better value out of the $10 billion it spends on early education each year and specifically asked if it was sensible that $1 billion of this is drained away as profit by businesses seeking to capitalise on childcare as if childcare was “a property investment class alongside fast food and petrol stations”. She pointed out that schools can’t profit from educating school aged children and asked why should it be any different for the education of younger children?

Enacted, these ideas would clearly be a radical change to how we currently provide childcare – early education and care – in Australia. Ms Ellis pointed out that many other countries already have some of these ideas in place. That families in France enjoy free early education and those in Denmark and Norway have capped costs. She spoke of the countries where children have a right to a childcare place such as Germany, Finland and Sweden.  

There is no doubt that radical change is what parents want, especially those that cannot access childcare places for love or money or the ones that hit the “cap” on their childcare rebate and have to pay substantially higher childcare fees for the last few months of each financial year.

The Coalition Government seemed to offer radical change when they promised a wide ranging Productivity Inquiry about childcare during the last election, but what has been achieved from this? A promise of a reformed subsidy system which will offer slightly cheaper childcare fees but will create not a single additional childcare place. The proposed new fee subsidy system was to be implemented in 2017 and has now been put back till 2018.  Before then is has to get passed by both the House of Reps and the Senate –  this looks increasingly unlikely given that the Greens, The ALP and The Nick Xenophon Party all put out dissenting reports to the majority report of the Senate Inquiry into the legislation which will enact the package earlier this month.  

The Government also promised a trial of a nanny program but was forced to admit at the Senate Inquiry that only 186 nannies are so far in place across Australia – a number unlikely to fill the childcare shortages that hamper so many women’s return to work. In her speech to the Press Club, Ellis said that “child care is not a reward for working – it’s a pre-requisite for it.”

“Unscrambling the egg” was the phrase Ellis used to describe what would have to be done to implement the extreme changes she envisions.  

Of course, making a speech is a long way from persuading your party to adopt a policy and a long way from making actual change to childcare provision.

But if Ellis can persuade the ALP that scrambled eggs are not needed in a world where smashed avocado rules, she may well manage to convince families that only a radical overhaul to how we provide childcare will work to fix the broken beyond repair system.

And then, Australian families may eventually get the early education and care system we so desperately need at a cost that we can actually afford.


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