I’m an early education and care (childcare) policy nerd. I’m sure nerds in other policy areas would be familiar with a game I play – it’s one where I fantasize that I’ve suddenly been appointed as the minister for my special policy area. How would I prioritize what’s most important?
So much needs to be done in childcare in Australia that choosing just three things to work on first would be hard.
It is no exaggeration to say that our childcare system is on the verge of collapse, with services unable to recruit the educators they need. There are about 6,000 vacancies now, and we will need another 39,000 educators by next year.
In addition, fewer Australian children have access to early education and care than children in other countries: hence our new prime minister’s desire for universal access. It costs their families way too much, with research showing that childcare is unaffordable for about 39% of all families and 48% of low-income families.
Despite government funding of around $10bn a year, our country still invests less in this area than other countries. We have an insanely complex system where the states have some responsibility for some parts of early education and the commonwealth for other bits. And did I mention it’s still an almighty struggle for some families to find the care they need?
Crap. That’s a lot more work than my three wishes can fix!
First, if I were the minister, I would be funding education and services so they could increase the wages of their staff. The workforce crisis can’t wait for inquiries or reports.
We have a crisis mainly because educators and early childhood teachers are paid shit wages. If we fund services to increase salaries, more people will want to join or stay in the sector.
I’d also set up better systems to train the staff needed (a well-funded Tafe, for starters) and fund organizations to offer free professional development and resources, so the huge burden on the directors that run our services is lessened even slightly. They are seriously close to breaking.
Second, I would abolish the childcare subsidy system introduced by the Morrison government. It is so bad that even their evaluation found that it didn’t make childcare more accessible, affordable, or flexible. It just made everything more complex!
How would I change it? I’d fund services themselves, not the families that used them. This would give me the leverage to ensure they provided high-quality education and care and paid their staff well. If they didn’t, I would defund them.
Third, I would make it illegal for publicly listed corporations and global private equity funds (or Australian ones, for that matter) to make a profit out of caring for our children. Because the fact that they do, on the strength of taxpayer dollars, sickens me big time.
Some services consistently provide significantly lower quality than community or not-for-profit services. I’d nationalize the ones already owned by these money-grubbers and make it clear there would no longer be any gravy trains for others with an eye on making a quick buck.
By this stage of living my fantasy, I usually come back to earth and realize that I’m not the minister and never will be. But we have a newly appointed minister for early education: Dr. Anne Aly. And luckily, her boss, Anthony Albanese, wants childcare (early education) to be one of the big things his government fixes.
The prime minister says he wants “universal childcare” and has promised it will be cheaper for parents. He has vowed to fix gendered wage disparities (the fact that 97% of the education and care workforce is women explains the low wages). He has also promised a comprehensive “early years strategy”. The education minister, Jason Clare, has also said that early education is one of his priorities.
So what three things should Aly and the new Labor government do to start fixing early education in Australia? Of course, Aly is more than welcome to steal my ideas. But suppose she wants to come up with her own. In that case, she still needs to tackle these key areas: the workforce shortages, the overly complex subsidy system that still leads to families paying too much, and the excessive profiteering by big businesses with their noses in the trough of Australian children’s early learning and care.
As a (fantasy) early childhood education and youth minister, I understand how hard it can be to change things. So, I reckon this would be a reasonable agenda for Aly. Well, at least for her first week as the minister …
Lisa Bryant advocates for education and care in Australia and is a consultant to education and care services.