The last month has delivered a whack of sobering new data for anyone in Australia who is currently paying for early childhood education and care, about to start paying for ECEC or is remotely interested in child development, gender equality or equity.
The latest CPI figures showed that fees for early childhood education and care rose at double the rate of inflation for all other goods and services last year. But thanks to information from the Education Department we learned this wouldn’t come as a surprise to the government given they’re expecting fees to increase by 4.1% each year for the next four years. (Keep in mind that’s 16.4% on top of fees that are already so eye-watering they are ranked as the 4th most expensive in the world).
If that wasn’t enough to stomach the Productivity Commission then released a slew of new data highlighting a number of highly concerning policy failures in regard to early education and care that are letting children and parents down.
Falling participation rates in preschool, increased regulatory breaches and 90,000 Australian parents staying out of the workforce due to the high cost of ECEC – a 21.7% rise compared with the previous 12 months – were among the more alarming findings. These all pose serious issues for the development and education of children, not to mention the economy.
If you harboured any doubt about the need for reform to improve participation rates, address affordability and ensure quality in early education, the last month would surely have stretched your faith.
But one person who has appeared nonplussed about this unfolding crisis is the new education minister, Alan Tudge. In the days around the various releases and associated news stories he spoke to a number of media outlets and reassured readers, viewers and listeners that cost is not a problem for Australian parents.
Minister Tudge’s preferred line is a variation of this: ‘Families in [INSERT STATE OR TERRITORY] are spending less than [INSERT DOLLAR FIGURE $5 OR UNDER] an hour for early education.”
For example, in NSW he said families pay just “$4.48 per hour”. In Victoria? “Just $4.12 an hour”.
On Sky News Tudge said this: “Almost a quarter of people are still paying $2 per hour or less for their childcare and almost three-quarters are paying $5 per hour.”
If that strikes you as especially affordable consider this. With rare exceptions, families do not pay for early childhood education and care by the hour. Mostly, families pay for a whole day. Many long daycare services – which families rely upon to be able to complete an 8-hour day at work – charge for between 10 and 12 hour sessions. That means that even if parents are paying “as little as” $5 per hour, the out of pocket cost for one child to attend long daycare will cost $50 a day. For a parent working three days a week that will add up to $150 a week or $650 a month. Double that if the parent has two children.
Work five days a week? That’ll be $250 a week. Have two children? That’ll be $500 a week, adding up to $26,000 a year. Doesn’t seem especially affordable does it?
The government argues that 70% of families have out-of-pocket costs of less than $5 per hour per child. But that means 30% of families are paying more than “just” $5 an hour and we know that it’s crippling.
It’s striking – and wearily familiar – that the education minister’s position, in the face of plenty of proof to the contrary, is that early childhood education and care is affordable.
The fact 90,000 parents say they’re out of the workforce because the cost of ECEC is too high? Apparently not convincing.
That Australian parents pay among the highest fees for ECEC in the world? Apparently not an issue.
That way back in 2017, when Australia’s economy was still booming, the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey found that 49 per cent of people with children under 5 had difficulties with the cost of childcare, up from about one-third in 2002? Not a problem.
The fact that in Brisbane and Sydney child care fees are now higher than they were back then, with an expectation they will rise by a further 16% over the next four years, while Australia faces its first recession in more than two decades? Apparently, not an issue.
That a survey of 2,200 families conducted by The Parenthood in June 2020 found that 66 per cent of parents reported the out-of-pocket costs of childcare before COVID were too expensive, and 76 per cent said the cost of childcare was too high for either them or their partner to work full time? Not of concern.
When mums like Emily Hovette explain they’re out-of-pocket by $350 a week for their one child to attend ECEC and having a second child will place an impossible strain on their family budget? Not an issue.
When KPMG publishes a study that finds it is commonplace for mothers seeking to increase their days of work beyond three days a week to face an effectively marginal tax rate of between 75 and 120%? Not a problem.
When the same study explains that tackling this issue would mean an additional 6,500 highly educated and professional women in the workforce? Not relevant.
When more than 2000 Australians and over 200 businesses signed a petition in under two weeks calling on the Federal government to make early childhood education and care free because of the way the cost was crippling families and small business owners struggling to stay afloat in the aftermath of COVID19? Not a word.
Not a single word. The reason this feels wearily familiar is because it is. There is a mountain of actual evidence pointing to the fact that early childhood education and care is prohibitively expensive in Australia. And there’s just as much evidence that it’s generally women and mothers who pay the price for it.
Perhaps that’s precisely why the Federal government is entirely unfazed about this crisis: because it affects women? Ignoring the reality of women’s lives in Australia is unfortunately familiar territory for the Morrison government. If only someone “credible” would speak up about this issue and it might attract their attention.