End of free childcare reveals major crisis
Childcare services could be closed off to more families and fees are likely to rise following the end of free childcare this Monday.
Advocates for early childhood education say if the federal government doesn't urgently intervene with a new funding model the sector will see widespread shutdowns and possible fee rises as services try to recoup their losses.
They are also calling for the sector to be radically overhauled and wrapped into the school system.
Out of school hours services are also set to be impacted with so many parents now working from home and no longer relying on the providers for school or holiday care.
The federal government's temporary free childcare program, paying half the operating costs to providers, was a crisis response to help prop up the sector when COVID-19 hit. It was welcomed by the parents of more than 1.3 million children who attend early learning services but many services have struggled to stay afloat financially.
TeaamKids is one of Australia's leading providers in out-of-school care, with founding director Sam Hoath warning attendance levels would not return to pre-COVID levels for at least another three years.
He is calling for a new means test to be applied in order to help struggling families maintain access and allow services to remain viable.
"We wouldn't be surprised if there was a drop in 20 to 30 per cent in the next six to twelve months overall," he said.
Former SA premier Jay Weatherill, now CEO of Thrive By Five, which advocates investment in childcare and early childhood learning, questions why the childcare sector is so fragile when compared to the security of the school system.
"What we saw is the school system largely remain secure at a time when we had massive insecurity in the early learning sector … that's proven to be too fragile and needs a massive rethink," he said.
Mr Weatherill's statements come after News Corp Australia revealed data from the nation's childcare watchdog exposed a stark inequity in quality across early childhood centres, depending on postcode. Other data has suggested one in five centres don't meet quality standards.
"The idea that we would have a haphazard service system that's got serious questions of quality is really just not sustainable. It's been that way for a long time but the COVID crisis has revealed it, and having revealed it it's not possible now to just not see it."
He said the "mishmash of responsibilities" has left the sector in a fragile state which is affecting the quality of care and said the sector should be wrapped into the education system.
Mr Weatherill said services expected to see a large drop off in the number of people who can afford early learning, which could then mean services may have to raise fees or close.
"There will be pressure put on those services and whether that means lifting fees perhaps, which might be even more counter-productive."
CEO of Early Childhood Australia Sam Page said the impact for some services will be high with some estimates suggesting 30 to 40 per cent of families have lost some form of work or income. She said early childhood education and care has been at the forefront of sectors hit hard by the pandemic and with Victoria back in lockdown the situation is again unstable.
Georgie Dent, The Parenthood's National Campaign Director said their research had indicated 34 per cent of families may have to look to reduce hours or drop days.
"It is not hard to imagine there will be a significant drop in attendance and that will mean some services will be below the point of breaking even," Ms Dent said.
Originally published as End of free childcare reveals major crisis