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Why a viable early childhood education system is needed more than ever

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Opinion By Michele Carnegie, CELA CEO

Early childhood education needs to be at the centre of governments’ economic stimulus package. During the height of the COVID-19 crisis we saw how vital early childhood education and care was to the essential workforce – it is now vital to the recovery.

We want to ensure all children can access early childhood education, but this cannot be at the expense of centre viability.

We need to respond to the current and future environment, which is incredibly uncertain. We cannot keep on switching early childhood education funding mechanisms, as each one fails to adapt to the current, unprecedented environment. Services are exhausted with the level of change that they have experienced and need stability of funding and capacity to support increasing enrolments.

To this end, CELA believes that the current model should be retained for now but modified to ensure services receive sufficient funding to meet present enrolment levels – a key issue if employees are not eligible for JobKeeper, and as enrolments increase.

The full labour market impact of COVID-19 will not be known for some time, at least until JobKeeper ends, but they will be severe. At the moment nearly 2 million parents are unemployed or not in the labour market. Single parents have been particularly affected by the employment downturn, with around 8% of single mothers and over 5% of single fathers losing their jobs1. These families need to maintain their access to early education so they can seek and gain work, and so their children can have continuity of education and care.

Government spending on early childhood education and care is a wise investment, provided care is taken that dollars reach children and educators and that quality of delivery is paramount. It increases our skill levels as a country and frees up families to seek work or engage in training.

Not for profits, which make up half of all early childhood education and care providers, are a key part of local community infrastructure.

CELA is advocating for you

CELA will strongly advocate to governments to support quality, community based early learning providers across the country as an essential economic and social investment.

We are listening to and acting on your concerns about the impact of reverting to the CCS system. We are lobbying the Australian Government to provide sufficient funding so all children can attend early childhood education.

We note your concerns about extending the current model of free childcare that does not fully fund your service to operate. This cannot continue – but we cannot go back to the previous model given:

  • Mass unemployment will mean thousands, if not millions, of families will not meet the activity test and won’t qualify for subsidised care;
  • Too many children will miss out on early childhood education and care, and start school with higher levels of disadvantage;
  • Centre viability across the country will be at risk, at a time when we need more access to care to support parents retraining, and to retain vital jobs.

We are working with other providers across the sector to lobby government for a model that will work for the economy, for services and for children and their families.

We are also collaborating with The Front Project, an independent national enterprise working to improve quality and create positive change early childhood education, to inform their modelling around the economic effects of the pandemic on services.

Your opinion can help shape the future

The Front Project is seeking information from services on cost drivers in early childhood education – so they can predict the impact an economic downturn will have on the sector including by provider type.
For example;

  • Will services be viable if ten percent less children enrol?
  • How does this look by provider type?

This type of data is vital to inform our advocacy, and to help government understand how a downturn will affect service viability and what support is needed.

The Front Project has contracted Dandolo Consulting to undertake the data collection and modelling and has strict guidelines around ensuring confidentiality of provider data, with only aggregated data to feature in their models.

If you are interested in providing information that will help The Front Project to inform government on service viability and support moving forward, please contact CELA Policy and Research Manager Megan O’Connell this week via meganoconnell@cela.org.au for further information.

We are also keen to hear directly from you on how changes to enrolments would impact your service. We will be sending 3 key questions to our members this week that will help us to understand more about how services could be impacted.

Let’s take the time to get this right

We need to work to create a long term funding solution for an early education and care system that can meet the needs of children, families and communities in a post COVID-19 context – but we can’t do that until we know the effects of the pandemic on unemployment.

Early childhood education is essential to families, communities and the economy – and a thriving community sector is an essential part of this.

Return of the CCS and fees will see a drop in attendance, which is likely to tip many services into an unviable situation and see services close AND children missing out on the early education they need. Our community based services and small providers invest in children, they don’t have the nest eggs set aside or the borrowing capacity to sustain this.

On the other side of COVID we are going to need a very different childcare subsidy system that meets the needs of families in a recovering economy, however for now we need to see a transitional period that is flexible and considered. Let’s pause and take the time needed to get this right.

References:
1 291.0.55.001 – Labour Force, Australia, Detailed – Electronic Delivery, Apr 2020


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