Parents: How have the COVID19 childcare changes affected you?

Parents: This is a time to make your voice heard

We have an opportunity to help ensure early childhood education and care - in all of its guises - can survive beyond COVID19, Georgie Dent writes.
Dan Tehan

It is a possibility that next week either the Prime Minister Scott Morrison or the Education Minister Dan Tehan will pull the plug on “free” childcare as early as June 28.

For some this news would be welcome. For Family Day Centres (FDC), comprising around 4% of childcare services in Australia, the government’s “rescue” package has been diabolical and ending it cannot come soon enough.

Because in terms of the number of children they care for and educate, they are far smaller than long daycare centres or preschool services, they have not experienced a dramatic drop in the number of children attending. Across the entire sector attendance rates are currently sitting at around 63% of what they used to be before the COVID19 shut down began. Not so for many FDCs who have, by and large, maintained pre-pandemic attendance rates.

Since the ‘rescue package’ came into effect FDCs, mostly operated by individual women at great expense, have been receiving half the money to do exactly the same job as before the pandemic hit with exactly the same number of children.

Many parents who are continuing to use the services because they’re still employed have wanted to continue paying, but the operators cannot accept any payment or they won’t receive any government funds. Plenty of parents and FDC providers are understandably furious; there are too many stories of services closing or staying open but only because the provider has decided to draw down on their mortgage or eat into their savings.

That FDC operators have continued to provide a vital service, not without risk, without recompense nor recognition is shameful. It needs to be fixed.

The issue of up to 30% of early childhood educators and staff being ineligible for JobKeeper – a critical component of the package’s design to keep centres from closing – also needs to be fixed.

But reverting back to the old system in six weeks time is no ‘fix’. Snapping back poses the real – and terrifying – risk of a collapse in early childhood education and care.

Ahead of the relief package services were facing mass withdrawals of children, thus jeopardising their viability, because centres only receive government funding for children enrolled. The introduction of ‘fee-free’ care stymied the drop in numbers and provided some relief to most services. If full fees come back into effect in six weeks time it is most likely that at least some children currently enrolled will be taken out of services because of the issue of affordability. Centres cannot viably operate even with the current 63% attendance average: any dip will be diabolical.

The government’s own review confirmed that the package has helped 86% of ECEC services keep their doors open. Without the intervention it is very clear centres would have closed. While the health risk now posed by COVID19 in Australia is far more contained, the economic damage is not.

Switching back to a flawed model that was designed for almost full employment when we’re facing the very likely prospect of a recession and unemployment figures around 15% would be disastrous. Mass closures will result – and the damage that would inflict is not affordable.

Children missing out on the benefits of ECEC while the nation is in a state of recession is not worth contemplating. It would serve to compound and create disadvantage in educational outcomes and economic terms – in both the short and the long term.

The education minister Dan Tehan has flagged that any change to childcare would be announced four weeks in advance of it kicking in. It means we now have only days to ensure that rather than ‘snapping-back’ to the old model the government instead focuses on immediately addressing the problems in the package, and uses the coming three months to radically reimagine early childhood education and care in Australia.

If you would like to have your voice heard on this subject, and help secure a stronger early childhood education for all Australian children please consider completing this short three minute survey.

We have an opportunity to be heard and to help ensure ECEC – in all of its guises – can survive and thrive beyond COVID19.

*I sit on the board of The Parenthood and am leading this campaign urging the government not to ‘snap-back’.

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