Sometime this week Australians can expect there to be an announcement that “free childcare” is over.
The whys are multifarious. Is it because, despite the fact it is 2020, we are still living in a country with a government with fewer than 20% female MPs?
Is it because the early education and care sector has not yet managed to convince the population of the importance of access to early education for every child? Is it because we live in a patriarchy and therefore public policy connected with women and children is forever overlooked?
Is it because the Morrison government was forced to hastily design a system in the early days of COVID-19 to keep our childcare system afloat but did it so poorly that “free childcare” came at the expense of a largely female workforce who survive on minimum wages at the best of times?
Is it because the government has just “snapped back” to its core ideology where subsidised childcare is a reward only for those they deem to be productive members of the workforce?
Is it because the bureaucracy is so unstable that the bureaucrats for areas such as childcare have only been in their jobs for a minute and do not understand the complexity of the early education and care sector they are designing policy for?
Is it because the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan is incapable of doing his job?
Regardless of the exact reason, Australia’s COVID-19 experiment with free early education and care is about to end.
Over the weekend Dan Tehan has been quoted as saying that “we think the old system [of childcare] that was in place was working well and that’s the basis of the model we would be returning to.”
This is despite the fact that less than 6 weeks ago he described this same system “as quite a complex system” that was “drafted for a pre-pandemic time”.
We are no longer in a pre-pandemic time. We are still (in case the Minister hasn’t noticed?) in the middle of a pandemic. To ‘snap back’ to a system that was complex and unworkable even before COVID-19 is nothing short of madness.
Why? Let’s remember what the world before free childcare looked like. Despite the fact that the cost of childcare subsidies are around $8 billion a year, families struggled to afford their childcare bills. Access was uneven. Quality was patchy. Despite the fact we are a wealthy country our children missed out on the universal access to vital early education that those in other countries have.
The system was designed not around children’s needs but around the needs of industry to have women available to participate in the workforce. Responsibility for funding fell between State and Territory governments (responsible for early education) and the Commonwealth Government (responsible for childcare) despite the fact that all services provided both early education as well as care.
Our system relied on the chronic underpayment of educators and early childhood teachers to survive. Even business was less than enamoured with the built in disincentives that caused their female staff to not want to work more than 3 days because of sharp rises in the cost of care after that.
This is the system Dan Tehan describes as “working well”. The question, then is for whom? If it didn’t work well for children, families, educators, teachers, business or state and territory governments, then who the hell did it work well for?
The answer is, of course, no one. (Bar of course the landlords who lease childcare centres and the foreign equity investors who like the idea of a business with guaranteed government subsidies).
So if it worked for almost no-one, if the funding system for our early education and care system was so complex and unworkable that it was one of the very first systems the government had to step in to rescue when the pandemic hit, lest there be wholesale closure of services, why on earth would we go back to it?
Let’s take this opportunity to simplify the system. We have a working system of supplying education to children over 5 years, why not duplicate it for those under 5 years? A universal system of play based early education publicly funded like our schools are, would allow both children families and businesses to get the early education and care they need.
Nothing is going to be the same in the immediate future, as it was pre COVID-19. Unemployment is going to be higher, female employment especially. Income is going to be stagnant for those with employment, costs are going to go up. Families will be forced to cut their number of days their children attend education and care services. Services, faced with falling occupancy levels will struggle to stay afloat. Many will close.
If Dan Tehan thinks then that we should return to the old system of childcare funding given these challenges, he is mad. Many people will be looking for new jobs in the coming weeks and maybe it’s time Mr Morrison considered adding Tehan to their ranks.
We need a new system to fund early education and care in Australia post pandemic and it is clear this bloke is not up to the task of recognising this or of designing it. So let’s give the job to someone who can. A woman perhaps?