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Universal childcare must cater for all children

5 December 2023

While the picture has improved in recent years, early childhood education and care (ECEC) is still out of reach for many Australian families.

Early years education and care can make all the difference in a child’s development, particularly for children facing disadvantage and vulnerability. But in the draft report the Productivity Commission released on 23 November 2023, we find that children experiencing disadvantage are currently the least likely to attend.

Giving every child the greatest opportunity to thrive means ensuring they can access up to 30 hours or three days a week of high-quality ECEC, regardless of their needs, their postcode or their family’s working status. To make that possible, we will need to address the barriers confronting those currently missing out.

For many families, particularly those in remote or regional areas, appropriate ECEC services simply do not exist. Only 8% of children aged 0–5 live in communities with sufficient centre-based day care places to support access to three days of ECEC a week.

And where services are available, some families cannot afford to access them. This is particularly the case for the lowest income families, who face the highest out of pocket child care expenses relative to their net income.

Parents must also contend with the ‘activity test’, which makes the number of subsidised hours of ECEC they receive contingent on how many hours they work, study or volunteer.

To put ECEC services within reach of all Australians, the Child Care Subsidy should be increased to 100% for families with an annual income below $80,000. The Government should also relax the activity test, so that all children can access three days of care regardless of their parents’ work activity.

Governments should also provide further funding to establish appropriate services in areas where private providers remain unwilling to invest.

Further barriers exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who often find it difficult to access care that meets their needs. The Government should develop a sustainable funding model for Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and invest in the cultural capability of the sector.

The ECEC sector should also be more supportive of children with additional needs. The Inclusion Support Program, which provides funding for these children, will have to be expanded significantly.

None of these changes will be possible without addressing the workforce challenges facing the ECEC sector. Processes arising from recent changes to the Fair Work Act are likely to improve wages and conditions for ECEC educators and teachers but more can be done to attract and retain these professionals.

Governments can support new pathways for educators seeking to upskill and become early childhood teachers, adjust models of educator training to better recognise prior knowledge and learning, as well as improve educator and teacher registration arrangements.

With well-considered and carefully staged reform, Australia can create a universal ECEC system that expands choices for families and gives every child the greatest opportunity to thrive.

This article was written by Commissioner Lisa Gropp, Commissioner Martin Stokie and Associate Commissioner Deborah Brennan.