SAMANTHA PAGE. In defence of public investment in childcare

When childcare issues have hit the news lately, it’s either been about the Federal Government’s new $1.6 billion package to help make childcare more affordable, or about massive fraud cases where rogue Family Day Care operators have pocketed millions of tax payer dollars.  

While the increased injection of funds to ensure families can access quality early learning through the childcare subsidy system has been broadly welcomed, and is a good investment of tax-payers money into the early education outcomes for young children, the investment by the government to cleaning up the family day care sector should also be welcomed.

Quite rightly, no one wants their valuable tax dollars lining the pockets of illegal Family Day Care operators. Everyone in the early childhood sector is pleased to see increased government action and regulation is now resulting in illegal operators being shut down. In NSW and Victoria, where most frauds have occurred, many services have lost their licence to operate or to claim Child Care Benefits, and it is now much more difficult to obtain a new licence to operate Family Day Care services. It’s unfortunate that a small percentage of fraudsters make sensational news headlines – and these news headlines tarnish the brand of the many excellent Family Day Care operators who provide a valuable, accessible and affordable service for families and a safe, stimulating early learning environment for children.

The Federal Government’s long awaited child care reforms – the Jobs for Families package – passed the Parliament in March, and the new child care subsidy scheme will be in place from July 2018. It increases the percentage of the subsidy for low and middle income earners, benefiting 75 percent of families with children under five years, and increases the annual cap on subsidies from $7500 to $10,000, cutting out-of-pocket expenses for families.

Unfortunately though, the Federal government missed the opportunity of this major reform to ensure that the most vulnerable children in Australia would be able to maintain or increase their access to early education and care services. This is a concern as we know vulnerable children benefit the most from early education experiences, and the flow on benefits to the rest of society are highest.

Essentially, the Jobs for Families Package is framed around supporting parents returning to work rather than promoting the best early education outcomes for children. As such, the Government did not take into account the greater long-term economic benefits of increased education and employment outcomes for children who access the right amount of high quality early learning. These benefits, importantly, are even higher for the one in five children who are developmentally vulnerable when they start school. This was a missed opportunity for increasing our future prosperity as a nation.

The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) measures vulnerability of all children starting school on a range of learning areas, such as communication, cognition, and emotional wellbeing. The 2015 AEDC indicated that one in five children in Australia (22%) were vulnerable on one or more areas, and that this figure was almost doubled for Indigenous children, with 42% found to be vulnerable.

Yet we know that children who attend early childhood education for at least a year before starting school are half as likely to have developmental vulnerabilities when they start school as children who have not accessed early learning.[i]

It makes economic sense to invest in education as early as possible. New research by Nobel laureate economist Professor James Heckman and colleagues finds a 13 percent return on investment for comprehensive, high-quality, birth-to-five early education. This is based on analysis of a wide variety of life outcomes, such as health, crime, income, IQ, schooling, and the increase in a mother’s income after returning to work due to childcare. Ensuring that all Australian children can attend quality early learning for at least two years before they start school is the most effective way we can address declining education performance and future-proof our evolving workforce.

So how did the Jobs for Families Package miss the mark?

Firstly, the base entitlement of subsidised childcare for families on low incomes was cut from 24 to 12 hours a week. Evidence suggests that all children should have access to at least 15 hours a week of high quality early education to deliver the best outcomes over the long term. And while all children benefit, the vulnerable children benefit the most from participation in early learning, and may need additional hours to maximise their benefits. Despite unified calls from the early education sector to increase the base level from 12 hours to at least 15 hours a week, the Government didn’t support amendments put forward by the Australian Greens to deliver this.

Secondly, ANU modelling estimated that more than 130,000 children could lose access to early learning because their parents would fail the new Activity Test. From 1 July 2018, for families earning over $65,000 to qualify for any level of support, both parents will have to meet an activity test. This requires them to work, study or volunteer for 4 hours a week, every week, or risk losing their subsidised care completely.

While the Government has described the Activity Test as a “light touch” test, that is, one which is easy to meet, for many it will not be. If the test is applied as has been outlined, additional family demands, such as caring for sick family members, or erratic work patterns often experienced by those in casual employment, might result in children dropping in and out of early education and care services as their parents circumstances change. Not only is this is a bad outcome for children, who benefit most from stability in their care settings, but it also makes it harder for parents who are trying to manage the complexities of employment and care. Most parents would understand the reality that it is much easier to organise your work and study, or even volunteering, AFTER the children are settled into care rather than beforehand. And when things go pear-shaped, it can be a relief to know that the children are settled in a quality care environment, providing that helpful window to rebuild. To lose access to child care subsidy during these times will add a burden of stress and compromise early education outcomes for Australian children.

These two key features of the Government’s child care package – the reduction in the base entitlement to 12 hours and the weekly Activity Test – will impact badly on vulnerable children and their families. The Government missed an opportunity to ensure that they delivered educational outcomes for all children, especially vulnerable children, to give them the best start in life.

Early Childhood Australia, in collaboration with many organisations across the national early childhood sector, will continue to advocate strongly for the rights of young children, and the benefits that early education brings to the whole community.

[i] RoGS Report table 3A 75 p3.36-3.37 “Children who received some ECEC were less likely to be developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains (19.9 per cent), compared to children who did not receive any ECEC (38.5 per cent).”
http://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2017/child-care-education-and-training/early-childhood-education-and-care/rogs-2017-volumeb-chapter3.pdf

 

 

Samantha Page is the CEO of Early Childhood Australia (ECA), the national peak advocacy organisation for children under eight, their families and professionals in the field of early childhood development and education.

ECA was established in 1938 and works with Government, early childhood professionals, parents, other carers of young children, and various lobby groups to advocate to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children from birth to eight years. ECA is a not-for-profit membership based organisation. It also has a successful retail and publishing arm, producing a number of very well regarded subscription based publications including the Australian Journal of Early Childhood.

Samantha holds a Master’s Degree in (Community) Management from the University of Technology, Sydney and she is a Graduate of the Company Directors course offered by the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Her passion is for social equality and she has worked in the non-government sector for 20 years across roles encompassing service delivery, executive management, consulting, social policy analysis and advocacy. She has extensive experience in the development and implementation of social policy and sector development projects.

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