A national survey of Australian parents last week revealed that at least 44% of families with children currently enrolled in early childhood education and care (ECEC) have had their income reduced since COVID19. In a whopping 17% of households both parents have either lost their job or income. More than a third of families would be forced to reduce days or remove their children out of altogether when out-of-pocket fees return.
In under 48 hours more than 1400 parents completed The Parenthood’s survey to give their feedback on the changes to childcare. The results confirm an early ‘snap-back’ to the old model, as the federal government has flagged, would have a dramatic and detrimental impact on families, the sector, and the nation’s economy.
This is despite the fact the current ‘fee-free’ arrangement is proving highly problematic for centres, family day care services, educators and families.
But the old broken model and the interim rescue package are not the only available options for the delivery of ECEC in Australia. That’s a false and narrow dichotomy that sells educators, carers, families and children short.
A radical reform of ECEC has been long overdue in Australia. It is fragmented, expensive, inefficient and fails spectacularly when it comes to paying educators appropriately. COVID19 has accelerated and exacerbated the deficiencies in Australia’s approach to ECEC; a high unemployment market and an economic slump will spell collapse.
ECEC services cannot operate viably if over a third of families pull their children from care – meaning closures will result.
The alarming rate of job losses among parents, confirmed by the national survey, also means that many families may experience the adverse consequences of the activity test for the first time. Any subsidy they were previously entitled to on account of their employment may be very different if they’re no longer working as much. The out of pocket cost for care could be significantly higher than before COVID19 for lots of families.
This puts Australia’s economic future – in both the short and long term – in jeopardy. Expenditure on early childhood education can be viewed unequivocally as a compelling and strong long-term investment with quantifiable financial returns.
A PWC report commissioned by The Front Project published last year concluded that $2 of benefits flow for every $1 spent on early childhood education. In 2017 there were $2.34 billion in costs associated with the provision of 15 hours of early childhood education in the year-before-school. From that $4.74 billion in benefits were associated with providing this one year of early childhood education.
Some of these benefits are realised in the short-term and include the bump in income and higher taxes paid by parents or carers who choose to work more because early childhood education is available. But longer term the cognitive benefits for children who receive a quality early childhood education can be linked to $1.06 billion in higher earnings over a lifetime and a further $495 million in higher taxes paid to government.
OECD data from 72 countries demonstrates the clear relationship between early childhood education and academic performance at age 15. Students who attended ECEC outperformed children who did not.
A child with no pre-primary education is nearly twice as likely to perform more poorly than a child who has attended a minimum of one year of pre-primary education. The Australian Early Development Census shows that children who have attended preschool are significantly less likely to be developmentally vulnerable at school entry compared with those who not. The difference is particularly pronounced for children from disadvantaged communities.
Walking away from these fundamental economic and social benefits is unfathomable – particularly as we enter what will almost certainly be the first extended period of time in a depressed economy for more than 20 years.
It’s also worth remembering that for all of the confusion and warranted angst and debate that’s been devoted to managing primary and secondary schools throughout the pandemic, no one, for even a moment, considered that permanently closing even a single school would be a necessary or appropriate solution. How to best manage the delivery of education through this crisis has been up for debate but the existence of schools was never in doubt.
The same ought to apply to early childhood education and care. Whatever it costs to ensure early educators and carers are paid properly and all Australian children can access the early education they deserve – regardless of what their parents earn or do – pales when you consider what it will cost to lose ECEC.
On Tuesday the 26th May at 7.30pm The Parenthood is hosting an emergency Town Hall Meeting that I will facilitate with ECEC consultant Lisa Bryant, CEO of Thrive by Five, The Minderoo Foundation’s early childhood development initiative, Jay Weatherill, economist Danielle Wood & teacher, parent of two & writer, Polly Dunning. If you care about fixing early education in Australia come along. It’s free and you can register here.