The cost and availability of childcare is a key issue for families. But the system needs of a overhaul, writes Jay Weatherill.
The cost and availability of childcare is a key issue for families. But the system needs of a overhaul, writes Jay Weatherill.

Childcare sector 'begging for national overhaul'

ANALYSIS

There has been concern expressed at the Commonwealth Government's decision on Monday to end the temporary provision of free childcare.

The decision has implications for Australian families and particularly for working mothers. I sympathise with these concerns, but Minderoo Foundation's Thrive by Five initiative remains committed to the longer game of systemic change to our nation's approach to the early years of life, with its promise of enduring benefits to children and families.

Despite COVID-19 being hugely disruptive and debilitating for the economy, it presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for early- learning reform and for decision-makers to sharpen their understanding of the value of the early years.

If the government lands this significant reform, it will have long-term social and economic benefits.

In early April, when the government intervened, it was the second time in little over a decade that the childcare sector was on the brink of collapse.

The government has important decisions to make over the coming months, but also a great opportunity to deliver serious reform to the early-childhood development system.

Access to and affordability of early learning have become the single biggest issue impacting cost of living for Australian families.

 

Jay Weatherill in 2018, during his time as premier of SA. Photo: Keryn Stevens.
Jay Weatherill in 2018, during his time as premier of SA. Photo: Keryn Stevens.

Childcare fees have risen faster than electricity bills and private health insurance over the past three years. This issue will be the post-COVID-19 "barbecue-stopper" - not only in South Australia but across the country.

Childcare costs absorb about a quarter of household income for an average-earning couple with two young children.

Many families will want to take additional shifts if it means putting a few extra dollars in their pockets.

About 350,000 parents with children in childcare either lost their job, were stood down, or had hours reduced in March alone.

When JobKeeper finishes, this situation could get even worse.

As the economy slowly comes back to life and parents look to take every possible shift, the expense and availability of early learning and childcare will be foremost on their minds. Even before COVID-19, half of Australian parents with children under five said they struggled with the cost.

For many, the cost of childcare is a disincentive to taking additional shifts. For many mothers, there is no incentive to work a fourth or fifth day because the money earned for second income earners from an extra day's work will be lost through higher taxes, reduced family payments and childcare.

Many second income earners are women.

Early-learning arrangements are not working for Australian families, which has negative implications across the economy.

It compromises workforce participation and national productivity. A more effective system would constitute a significant economic reform.

As they say, you never waste a crisis. Now is the time to undertake serious and necessary reform.

Reform to our early-learning system will have broader, positive impacts to the education, health and social trajectories of our young people.

South Australians have understood this for a long time. The state has taken more steps towards an effective early-learning system than any other jurisdiction in Australia. More than other states, SA has led the nation in developing a deep understanding of the importance of the early years.

The Thinker in Residence program provided the intellectual firepower behind considerable policy changes. As part of this program, SA invited two global experts to Adelaide: Carla Rinaldi and Fraser Mustard. Their reports made a substantial contribution to understanding the importance of early learning.

Public investment and policy reform followed. SA had the highest expenditure per child of all states. Most importantly, this money was well spent and has resulted in 127 (out of a national total of 184) children's centres for early-childhood development and parenting.

 

Professor Carla Rinaldi, a former Adelaide Thinker-in-Residence.
Professor Carla Rinaldi, a former Adelaide Thinker-in-Residence.

These centres provide opportunities for children and parents to learn together. They also accommodate the integrated services so important to young families.

The creation of such centres - universally accessible and connected to the education system - is exactly the type of reform the Government should be considering in this moment of disruption.

This crisis has produced a national sentiment geared towards change. With the national Cabinet, we have an instrument capable of realising an ambitious reform agenda.

The early years do much to determine our economic and social trajectory.

Around 90 per cent of lifelong brain development takes place in the first five years of a person's life.

High-quality early-learning centres allow parents to participate in the workplace, reassured in the knowledge their children are in an environment that will help them thrive.

Now is the moment. The national Cabinet is perfectly suited to addressing complex problems, quickly. A new early-learning system would constitute an important economic reform - it will enhance productivity, both in the short term through increased workforce participation, and in the long term through a more capable workforce.

If ever there was an issue that begs the attention of the National Cabinet, this is it.

 

Jay Weatherill is chief executive officer of philanthropic organisation Minderoo Foundation's Thrive by Five initiative, which invests in and advocates for effective early-childhood development outcomes. Mr Weatherill was SA premier from 2011 to 2018 and a former minister for early-childhood development.

Originally published as Childcare sector begging for national overhaul - Weatherill



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