Free childcare ends today. Here's why that spells disaster

Free childcare ends today. Here’s why that spells disaster

Even when the end of free childcare was announced in early June it felt inexplicably premature & short-sighted. Now, it seems completely unsustainable.
free childcare

Five weeks ago the education minister Dan Tehan announced that “free” early childhood education and care (ECEC) would end and that parents would begin paying fees again from the 12th of July, today.

Tehan also announced that ECEC services would be paid 25% of pre-pandemic revenue directly from the government until the 4th of October, but that workers in the sector would no longer be entitled to JobKeeper from the 20th of July.

Even back then, when admittedly the health risk of COVID19 felt more contained than it does now, it felt inexplicably rushed and short-sighted. Given we were still very much in the midst of the pandemic’s economic fall out with roughly 40% of families using ECEC having lost income, the idea of families being able to “snap back” to paying full fees en-masse this week was far-fetched.

Despite warnings being issued to the government that a third of families using ECEC would have to take their kids out or reduce their days if fees were reinstated – which would place unsustainable pressure on the financial viability of services the government proceeded.

That early educators, one of the lowest paid workforces in the country, would be the first – and so far only – group of workers to have JobKeeper turned off was galling.

The fact it’s a workforce dominated by women whose chronically underpaid work was deemed so essential during the pandemic that they were told to keep turning up to their place of work while everyone else was told to stay home to stay safe was gobsmacking.

And that was all before Victoria was in the throes of an alarming second wave of the virus. The very same factors that led the government to intervene in April with “free” ECEC are in play again.

Families in Melbourne may not be charged out of pocket fees for days their child, or children, are not in attendance as services are entitled to waive the gap. While this may be something of a relief for families, as ECEC consultant Lisa Bryant points out, this will just place more pressure on services themselves: it means they will forgo income they need to cover the costs of operating.

“So if services waive gap fees their income goes down substantially. Their rent and staffing costs don’t and remember that JobKeeper was removed from educators this month,” Lisa Bryant tweeted.

Even without the spike in Victoria that has necessitated a return to lock-down and the realistic risk of similar second-waves occurring in other states, switching back to fees today was cause for concern.

For children the risk of no longer being able to attend ECEC is significant. We know that children who do not attend pre-primary education and care and whose parents experience unemployment arrive at school with a disadvantage that stays with them over the course of their schooling lives.

We know that the economic, social and educational benefits that small children derive from attending ECEC make it one of the most compelling investments a nation can make. We know that we are on the cusp of an economic downturn: we know unemployment is rising and that meaningful relief is unlikely to be achieved in the short term.

Against that backdrop ensuring as many Australian children as possible can attend ECEC is more critical than ever before.

For families, no longer being able to access ECEC because of its un-affordability will make looking for work much harder. It will make taking any additional shifts difficult. For small business owners it will make trying to re-secure their business’ futures almost impossible.

For services and educators another mass exodus of children will undermine their financial viability and livelihoods. They have already been squeezed. Even if attendance numbers only drop marginally from 74% many services will be operating at below break-even point. Closures will almost certainly eventuate.

Given how vital and valuable the work early educators undertake is and the broader function ECEC fulfils, this risk is unacceptable. At the very least children, families and educators deserve stability in this sector. The status quo is unsustainable and without intervention will only continue to deliver instability.

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