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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Childcare sector warns of premature snap back

With 28 June earmarked as the potential end date for the Federal Government’s Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) Relief Package, services and parents are still in the dark about what comes next.

The Australian Government originally announced the package on 2 April to ensure as many childcare businesses as possible survived the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing to provide care to children.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment said that to “ensure ongoing access to early childhood education and care, from 6 April 2020 until 28 June 2020, services that remain open and have children enrolled, will receive a weekly payment to ensure they can deliver early childhood education and care to families who need it. These payments will be made instead of the usual Childcare Subsidy (CCS) and Additional Childcare Subsidy (ACCS) payments”.

A four-week review of the relief package suggests it succeeded in its objective of keeping services open and viable, with 99% of around 13,400 services operational as at 8 May 2020.

However, the Federal Government did announce an additional $12.8 million in funding for the package. Of this, $12 million will to go to childcare services with 30% or more of full-time equivalent staff ineligible for JobKeeper Payments, and $800,000 to increase the level of funding for In Home Care providers, noting they provide education and care predominantly to essential workers and vulnerable children.

Yet it’s what is to come next that is causing some concern for parents and providers.
As at Wednesday 27 May, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment said no decision has been made about the ECEC relief package.

Federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, has previously flagged the government would provide four weeks’ notice of any changes to the scheme. With the 28 June deadline looming, this means an announcement should occur by this Sunday 31 May.

A spokesperson for Goodstart Early Learning said while the ECEC Relief package has been a success, and important for the sector, they would not like to see it switched off prematurely.

“The sector has not returned to normal conditions yet with attendances still well down on this time last year and many of our families are facing very uncertain futures with job losses, or substantial changes in the regularity,” the spokesperson said.

Goodstart has also raised concerns about the current design of CCS as being “not fit for purpose for the difficult economic circumstances Australia faces” and in need of significant tweaking.

“We don’t want to see parents unable to look for or accept work because they can’t afford childcare,” the spokesperson said. “Nor do we want to see children whose families are facing tough times unable to access early learning because their families can’t afford it.”

This is a view shared by Early Childhood Australia (ECA) which believes the architecture of the CCS is sound, however, modest adjustments could be made to respond to the current economic circumstances.

“The current design of the CCS is not fit for purpose in the post-COVID-19 economy where many parents will experience unemployment, underemployment and unstable or sporadic work,” ECA CEO Samantha Page said.
“We cannot continue to rely on parents paying a significant component of the cost of care (30-40%), even when children are not attending, when so many households have lost income and face uncertainty in their earning capacity over the next two years while the country recovers.”    

According to the ECA, adjustment of the CCS has the potential to provide over one million families with access to some free or low-cost care each week without the risk of incurring childcare debts and it would save 200,000 jobs in the early childhood education and care sector.

Some of the recommendations ECA have put forward to the Federal Government include: A more generous level of subsidy (10% increase) would significantly improve affordability; removing the activity test would improve access; and it is possible to fully subsidise 20 hours per week to give all children regular access for two or three days of quality early education while families get back on their feet.

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