Early childhood education & care is broken. Coronavirus proves it

Early childhood education & care is broken. Coronavirus proves it

The provision of early childhood education and care in Australia is broken and the Coronavirus has revealed the extent to which the system is flawed.  The sector is on the brink of collapse.

Consider this.

For several weeks there has been uncertainty about how school should be delivered. Will they close? Should students attend? Are teachers safe?

There has been no uncertainty, however, about whether teachers or schools are needed. It’s understood both are, obviously, critical. The manner in which education is to be facilitated, in the short term at least, has been up for discussion but its existence is assured. As it should be.

When it comes to early childhood education & care the questions are the same but the answers are very different. Childcare centres aren’t government-funded like schools. Parents receive subsidies from the government that are passed on to centres and they pay any gap between the subsidy and the daily rate. Those subsidies and fees support the wages of the educators and all the associated operating costs.

But as Lisa Bryant wrote in The Guardian Australia on Monday, parents are currently withdrawing their children from childcare “in droves”.

“They are doing it because they are concerned for their children and because they are told to keep children home if possible. But mostly they are doing it because childcare is expensive. When families lose their income, childcare is an obvious place to cut.”

In these circumstances it isn’t surprising but the impact is potentially devastating. It means that unlike primary and secondary school teachers, who haven’t all been dismissed because students aren’t coming, many early childhood educators have already been let go.

Last week Goodstart Early Learning, one of Australia’s largest providers, had to lay off 4,000 casual educators. These are among the lowest-paid workers in the country so the idea of them being financially equipped to withstand this unexpected job loss is ridiculous.

It is also crushing to consider that, like primary and secondary teachers, educators and carers have been thrust unwillingly on to the front line of a highly contagious virus for weeks.

Centres and preschools haven’t been closed and while most other Australians have been told the safest thing to do is stay home, these employees have been told to keep turning up to work. Usually for a very basic wage with no loading for the health risk (or the value provided).

At least primary and secondary teachers haven’t needed to fret over their employment status while also panicking about the virus: early childhood educators and carers should be so lucky.

To lose their jobs after weeks of putting themselves at risk is incredibly insulting. As well as highly problematic.

Many childcare centres and operators in Australia may close for good because of the Coronavirus. That will be a disaster. For children, for educators and for parents.

Whatever happens now school won’t collapse, that much is clear. Early education and care shouldn’t either. It’s a critical function in society: it is a fundamental part of a child’s education and development and the best investment any country can make in its future.

And, yes, it is also important in an economic sense in that it facilitates the combination of paid work with family responsibilities.

There are, literally, millions of reasons that a nation cannot function without an early education system.

If there was ever definitive proof that Australia’s early childhood education and care system was broken, the idea that a virus could bring this vital sector totally to its knees is it.

For many many years, decades even, early childhood educators and advocates have been arguing for a totally new approach. To nationalise early learning and care and extend school to cover the early years too.

It is clear that a fragmented market doesn’t work. This is the opportunity to change that. An opportunity to create universal access to high quality early education and care for all Australian children.

On Monday the Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, acknowledged the precarious position of the sector.

“Clearly one of the most impacted parts of the economy will be the childcare sector,” he said.  “This situation is urgent in childcare and it needs to be fixed as a matter of priority. If the government takes steps in that regard, we will support them.”

On Tuesday the government confirmed that at a meeting this Friday between the Premiers, chief ministers and the Prime Minister, childcare and early childhood education will be discussed.

May it be the start of an overdue and necessary overhaul.

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