Last week I visited one of YWCA Canberra’s six early learning centres. On the day of my visit, this centre had 10 children in attendance, less than 10 per cent of its capacity. It was against the backdrop of this visit, that the government announced its plans to remove the Early Childhood Education and Care sector from the JobKeeper wage supplement, saying the life-line thrown to the sector in April had “succeeded in keeping services viable”.
As a provider of early learning and school aged care in Canberra, our staff have experienced the impact of COVID-19 first-hand. They worked throughout the shut-down period, allowing parents to keep working, despite the risks to themselves, They watched their centres emptied as parents withdrew children from their care, and then welcomed them back when the service became free. The uncertainty across the sector was palpable.
The sector relief package that mixed JobKeeper and 50 per cent of regular government Child Care Subsidy, though flawed, allowed us to continue to provide a vital and essential service to the community. Collectively, we worked hard to keep our people employed, particularly those whose visa class disqualified them from accessing JobKeeper. The Prime Minster’s ‘guarantee’ that all workers could depend on the supplement until September provided the sector with a much-needed, though short-lived, assurance.
The relief package mandated free access to services which resulted in a foreseeable increase in attendance. It was the subsequent increase in enrolments during this fee-free period, however, which the Government claims has reached 74 per cent capacity, that prompted the end of JobKeeper for the sector.
The fact a free service often prompts greater demand may have been lost on the Government but it has not been lost on us or the parents who, faced with a return of fees in the face of a loss of household income or jobs, have once again commenced withdrawing their children from our services. The assumption that parents would continue paying for a service many already considered unaffordable, while the national economy contracts is both illogical and reckless. As a provider, we knew that fee-free services would come to an end. What we don’t understand is why the Government would pre-emptively cut the sector from JobKeeper before the economy has been given the chance to “snap back”.
According to the Government, there are no plans to remove other workers from JobKeeper before the forecasted review of the scheme is completed in July. In removing only early childhood educators from the stimulus, the Government has singled them out as having negligible political or economic influence. This approach fails to register the unique position early learning occupies in the economy and carries substantial consequences for the sector, working women and the broader economy.
Women’s entry, retention and return to the labour force has been the demographic game changer for the Australian economy over the past forty years and is estimated to have added 22 per cent to national GDP since 1974. Despite the disincentives in the Child Care Subsidy matrix that hamper women’s return to full-time work, the availability of early childhood education and care has been pivotal to economic growth.
The impact of COVID-19 on women’s economic participation is now evident. Labour force data shows that more women than men dropped out of employment between March and April with female-dominated industries like Accommodation and Food Services particularly affected. The gender divide does not end there and research by The Australia Institute shows the Government’s stimulus measures have disproportionately benefited men as a workforce.
Early educators have been on the frontline during this challenging period; their labour has meant the national economy has been able to grind through this period of uncertainty. The value of early education has never been more apparent.
If our economy is to “snap back” it will require thriving children’s services capable of meeting the demand of all parents who require it. More significantly it will require a recalibration of how policy makers value early educators and early learning; not as ‘babysitters’ but as professionals and an investment in the future workforce.