Early learning & care is radically unaffordable but there is a bigger crisis

Early learning & care is radically unaffordable but there is a bigger crisis

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On Mother’s Day in 2015 the then-Social Services Minister, Scott Morrison, announced a substantial package to make early childhood education and care more affordable and accessible to families.

A Media Release, published on 10 May 2015 announcing the investment, reads: 

“The package will deliver significant reform, putting downward pressure on child care costs. This package reforms the inflationary system ….”

Fast forward seven years to Mother’s Day in 2022 and CPI figures show families are now paying 28% more for early childhood education and care than in 2015. Childcare was unaffordable back in 2015 which is why Morrison introduced the Jobs for Families package, and it’s now more expensive than ever before.

It’s not just more expensive for parents either – it’s costly for taxpayers too. In 2016-17 the federal government spent $7.2billion on the childcare subsidy while in 2021-2022 the spend will exceed $11billion, a jump of more than 34%. 

Under the childcare subsidy model fees have consistently grown at a faster rate than inflation. Over the same period wage growth has been almost non-existent at the same time that housing costs have soared and the general cost of living pressure is mounting. It means the financial pressure on families with young children is increasingly unsustainable. In real terms it’s far worse than it was in 2015.

We have known for a long time that the high out of pocket cost for childcare in Australia is a barrier for lots of parents, but particularly mums, to work.  In February this year there were 70,000 Australians not in employment because they couldn’t access childcare.

That means their children are potentially missing out on the benefits of early childhood education and care, at the same time they’re missing out on the security of receiving an income. We know that long-term it’s mums who pay the devastating price for making this “choice” – which is quite literally the furthest thing from a choice – to stop working.     

But the fact that early learning and care is radically unaffordable is only part of the picture. It’s not accurate to say there is a far bigger crisis looming in early childhood education and care; the stark reality is that it’s upon us.

For many years early educators, and advocates, have been raising the alarm about their pay and conditions. They are among the lowest paid workers in the country – despite doing critically valuable, essential and difficult work. They are chronically and systemically underpaid, they’re undervalued, they’re exhausted and they are walking away. The pandemic has rapidly escalated this trend and already the consequences are devastating.

In August 2021 a survey of 4000 educators showed that 72% are planning on leaving within 3 years. Why? Here’s a taste.

The report, Exhausted, undervalued and leaving: the crisis in early education found:

  • 70% of educators surveyed said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ worry about their financial situation.
  • 81% of centre directors say they have had difficulties in attracting and recruiting staff.
  • 92% of educators told us ‘under-the-roof’ ratios compromise the safety and wellbeing of children.
  • 65% of educators report that their services are already understaffed, and providers are reporting having to cap new enrolments because they can’t find enough staff.
  • Over 75% of educators strongly agree that turnover negatively impacts how children learn and develop as well as their emotional wellbeing more broadly.
  • Almost half of educators surveyed would not recommend ECEC as a career.

It’s not difficult then to understand why services right around the country are struggling to attract and retain educators in unprecedented numbers it it? 

In February 2022 there were 5,622 vacancies in the early childhood education and care sector across Australia which is double pre-pandemic levels. On Thursday brand new data show nearly 15% of long day care centres nationwide do not meet the staffing requirements of the National Quality Framework.

On Monday Channel Nine’s The Today Show interviewed a couple, Georgia and Dane, who live in the remote Queensland town of Julia Creek with their two boys aged 2 and 4. There is one early learning service in that town and due to finding it impossible to find early educators it will either need to close down altogether or reduce the number of children who can attend.

A town with no early learning service is a town that is baking in disadvantage before a baby is even born. It is a town where parents will struggle to work unless they have family around who can help. It is a town where children will miss out on the benefits of quality early learning, where the children will be significantly more likely to arrive at school developmentally vulnerable.

That town is not isolated. In March the Mitchell Institute published a groundbreaking report showing that more than 30% of Australians live in a neighbourhood that is a “childcare desert” which describes a place where there are three or more children for every early learning position that is available.

There are “childcare deserts” in every capital city and every state and territory, though there are more deserts in regional and remote areas. It’s hard to imagine many Australians would countenance 35% of the population living in a neighbourhood that couldn’t provide primary and secondary schooling to every child in the community.

The same ought to go for the formative early years. Access to quality early learning is an essential component of healthy development and education. It is profoundly influential in setting children and families up to thrive. Children in Australia need a system that meets their needs so that they can have the best start in life, regardless of where they live or their parents’ employment status.

Without early educators, however, all of that is moot. Without urgently stemming the loss of this critical workforce – with decent pay and conditions as a starting point – there will be no early childhood education and care. We will be setting up too many children for lifelong disadvantage. We will compromise their safety, education and development.

With every single room or centre that closes because they do not have enough staff, we will make it harder for parents to work. And we know that nine times out of ten, it will be mum who “chooses” to opt out of work if affordable, suitable care isn’t available. The safety, freedom and agency that is associated with financial independence, that is structurally denied to women, moves even further out of reach. 

Australia doesn’t just need cheaper early childhood education and care. We need early childhood education and care that is delivered by a well paid and properly valued workforce. We need quality, inclusive early education and care that is accessible to every child in the country. And we need a system that is radically more affordable.

The last decade has proved the subsidy model is unfit for purpose in delivering quality, affordable and accessible childcare. It is time for reform. 

On Sunday, spare the women of Australia the platitudes and instead seek a commitment from every political party and candidate who is standing for election on the 21st of May 2022 to make quality affordable early education and care a reality. It is the gift that will give and give and give for generations. 

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