Today in Australia over one million Aussie children under the age of twelve are in some form of childcare. Childcare emerged in the era of flares in the 1970’s in the not for profit sector but today it’s quite a different story.
The Australian Federal government first provided funding to working or sick parents for childcare in 1972. It’s safe to say Australia was a little bit like a colonial outpost in those days. Aboriginals only received a vote in 1971. Fashion and public policy weren’t the only things that were backwards, attitudes to working mums were also in the dark ages. Working full time with kids in full time childcare was, as one mum describe it to me, “it was seen practically as an act against god”.
In the early 80’s the long daycare program was also expanded to cover pre-school, family daycare (which is care hosted in an educators home) and outside school hours care (before and after school clubs). The government introduced what is not our rebate system and changed the way funding was allocated and in 1988 we had a national childcare strategy, before that the seven states and territories were all doing their own thing. In 1996 the fee relief was expanded to commercial childcare operations, and since that time we have been moving away from a not for profit model to a commercial model without stopping to think why?
Australia took their hand off the ball in an epic ashes-style collapse in 2008. Childcare group ABC Learning was the world’s largest childcare operator having expanded rapidly in a short amount of time. At ABC’s height they had more than 1000 centres in Australia, 53,000 childcare places, 14,000 staff and controlled 15% of the market, additionally they also owned 2,000 centres across the globe.
The operations were lean and educators have told me of a ‘toy van’ that used to travel from site to site when they were being inspected to create the illusion of a fully resourced centre. The founder expanded to the US but the Global Financial Crisis led to a mountain of debt they couldn’t service. When they were placed into receivership they were receiving $1 million a day from the Government through the childcare rebate. The collapse rocked the Australian childcare sector and ironically a charity consortium rescued 700 centres. Some of the remaining were closed or bought by private operators.
The government conducted an enquiry into ABC and the issue was put to bed as a public policy disaster. Positive changes since the collapse in early learning has been the introduction of the National Quality Framework (NQF) for early childhood education to improve the quality of early education and care services, across long daycare centres, family daycare services, preschools/kindergartens and out of school hours care. The changes include lowering staff-to-child ratios* and introducing higher qualification requirements for early childhood educators. There has also been funding to support a universal preschool/kindergarten program.
We have just been through a childcare enquiry and the Government has announced a childcare package to address parents issues like flexibility and cost but still retaining ‘quality’ standards as identified by the NQF. The package is worth $3.5 billion and provides income aligned childcare rebates. The government has set a new benchmark for childcare at $110/day or $9/hour. This means you can’t get subsidies over that amount but it doesn’t stop Sydney city-centre childcare centres charging $160/day. They are engaging Mary Poppins and friends and conducting a two-year Nanny pilot targeting shift workers and those living in regional areas. The government are looking at how Nannies can be regulated and if they will come under the NQF? Let’s just say it’s controversial.
So what the budget doesn’t do is provide better pay for educators in the Early Learning sector, it won’t really have any affect on the long waiting lists in capital cities and it will have little impact on women’s participation rate in the workforce. The catch is all the measures proposed by the government are contingent on controversial cost saving measures being passed in other areas of the budget so it will remain to be seen in 2017 what the childcare package in Australia really looks like?
*Staff to child ratios: 1:4 in 0-24 months, 1:5 24 months and less than 36 months, Over 36 months and up to and including preschool age 1:11.