A little over a year ago I joined the board of a not-for-profit organisation called The Parenthood. Its mission is to give a voice to parents and primary carers to advocate on issues relating to children and families.
A critical component of that work to date has been around seeking wholesale change to improve Australia’s early childhood and education system. To improve wages and conditions for educators. To improve affordability and access for parents. To ensure every Australian child receives the best quality education and care possible.
Personally and professionally these are issues I have been invested in for a decade. In my view reform in this area has always been urgent and overdue but right now action is needed more urgently than ever before.
It is for this reason that I’m fronting a campaign with The Parenthood calling on the government to extend free childcare beyond June 28. This will enable early childhood education and care centres to continue, ensure kids can access the education and care they need and help families adjust to the “new normal”.
The Prime Minister has said free childcare is not sustainable: but pulling the rug out from under families and the sector three months ahead of schedule and ‘snapping back’ to the old system is not sustainable either.
As the COVID19 pandemic escalated in Australia, many parents found themselves facing difficult choices related to their children’s early childhood education and care. People losing work suddenly could not afford to send their children, and large numbers of parents began keeping their children at home due to health concerns around the virus. Increasingly, anxiety grew.
The sector was becoming less viable with every day that passed because centres could not operate, financially, with the sudden and substantial reduction in numbers.
On Thursday the 2nd April, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and the education minister Dan Tehan announced that childcare would be made free. The old system was being switched off and a new arrangement would come into effect in which parents would no longer have to pay any out of pocket fees. The government would provide centres with 50% of their pre-COVID19 fees and the job-keeper package would help cover the wages of educators and staff.
Both the Prime Minister and Minister Tehan made a number of indications that the new arrangement would be in place for a period of six months.
“Child care and early childhood education is critical,” the Prime Minister said when announcing the new arrangement. “Particularly for those Australians who rely on it so they can go to work every day, particularly those who are working in such critical areas.”
“I don’t want a parent to have to choose between feeding their kids and having their kids looked after, or having their education being provided.
“This virus is going to take enough from Australians without putting Australian parents in that position of having to choose between the economic wellbeing of their family or the care and support and education of their children. I won’t cop a situation where a parent is put in that place with their kids.”
Late last week and over the weekend the Prime Minister indicated that the government intends to ‘snap back’ to the old system as of the 28th of June. To say this is alarming and concerning is an understatement. For children, parents and the sector the impact will be disastrous.
Snapping back to the old system in six weeks time is simply unsustainable. The old system was already flawed but with the seismic shift in the employment market and Australia’s economic outlook it simply will not be fit for purpose – for parents, children or centres.
Given 600,000 Australians lost work last month alone it is fantasy to imagine that parents will be in a position to begin paying full fees by the 28th of June. Without pre-COVID19 enrolments and revenue many centres will not be viable.
Rather than halting the free childcare arrangement ahead of schedule we’re asking the government to instead urgently address some of the problems that have emerged with the COVID19 package.
Funding educators and carers who are ineligible for JobKeeper is critical and the issue of ensuring Family Day Care and In-home care services can survive needs to be addressed urgently.
As the plan has rolled out, problems have also been identified where parents have lost the “days” they had secured under earlier arrangements. Some centres have reportedly cut the days they can provide because of the cuts to revenues. This problem is increasing as more parents are returning to work and seeking to return children to early childhood education and care.
As it stands many centres cannot operate with just 50% of pre-COVID19 revenue so increasing this to 75% would be a significant step.
Halting free childcare while Australia’s economy is still in a state of shock will be disastrous. This is the time to make the system stronger so parents and children can continue to access the vital service, and centres can continue to function.
Back in April the Prime Minister himself said this. “This virus is going to take enough from Australians without putting Australian parents in that position of having to choose between the economic wellbeing of their family or the care and support and education of their children.“
Putting parents in that position is every bit as unacceptable now as it was in April.
If you would like to add your name to a petition calling on the government to extend free childcare for at least three months, click here.