The Federal budget had important news for working parents, and comes just before the International Day of Families - observed on the 15 May every year.
Here, Jay Weatherill, former South Australia Premier, now CEO of Thrive by Five - an initiative of Minderoo Foundation - explains what he wants to see next if affordable, accessible childcare and early childhood education are to become a reality - and a key enabler for women's workforce participation.
Over to Jay ...
A high-quality early learning system is the most powerful instrument we have, to realise the promise of an equal society. The current ‘system’ is really several sub-systems, which span infant and maternal health, family services, childcare, and preschool. It lacks coherence and accountability. Reform is desperately needed, and the additional investment of $1.7 billion dollars, from 1 July 2022 and distributed over three years, is a step in the right direction. The four-year preschool funding arrangement announced is also welcome, as it provides certainty to the states and providers. But it is not enough.
Universally affordable childcare has a range of economic and human benefits. It provides choice for second income earners – invariably mothers – who can derive an economic benefit from re-joining the workforce or working more days, whereas the previous system was a disincentive to a return to full-time work. Broadening choices for working women is emancipatory. It allows more Australians to realise their professional potential and enhances their lifelong economic security.
The additional funding is also designed to positively impact workforce participation - and thus economic growth. It is an important step, but there is much more to do. Additional funding into early learning and childcare is a smart investment – but we also need improved policy settings, designed to enhance quality and learning outcomes for children. We should remember that, over the past 12 years, the Commonwealth has doubled its investment into early childhood education without making any real impact on the number of Australian children entering primary school developmentally vulnerable.
If the Federal Budget announcement is not complemented by policies to support a well-paid, secure workforce of early childhood educators, there is a risk that the additional demand will adversely affect quality standards. There is already an unacceptably high staff turnover in childcare centres, at around 30 per cent. Early educators remain amongst the lowest paid workers in Australia despite, being qualified and delivering a critical and hugely valuable service. Turnover disrupts the relationship between educator and child - and has an impact on quality and parent confidence in the system.
This situation needs to be urgently addressed if we are to ensure improved affordability walks alongside improvements to quality. While we commend the important announcement made in this year’s federal budget, and its intention to deliver benefits to working women and the broader economy, we must not lose sight of the principal subjects of our early childhood development system: children.
The Federal Budget is an important step towards a universal, high-quality early learning and childcare system. Minderoo Foundation aspires to an early childhood development system that supports child and family centred society. To realise this vision, much more needs to be done.
Follow the work of the author's Thrive By Five organisation
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