Budget reply: Early childhood funding misses the mark
The federal government’s $1.6 billion funding commitment for early childhood education over the next four years is a start, but more is required to secure the future of the sector.
Big numbers; small targets
As headlines go, the numbers look good. Over a billion dollars in funding. A 95% childcare subsidy. Lower fees the more children you have in early learning. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a more complicated picture.
The budget delivers some positive steps that will benefit some of those families who are struggling with the cost of early childhood education. But the funding commitments fall far short of delivering high quality, universally accessible and affordable early learning for every Australian child.
That centres now have some certainty in their short term funding arrangements – the $1.6 billion is to be delivered over 4 years – is obviously an improvement on the uncertainty and unpredictability of the previous funding arrangements that required renewal each year. But four years of funding assurances, for such a critical social service, is only to bring the sector up to a baseline of minimum expectations and is far from revolutionary. And even this apparent certainty comes with a hidden sting: the funding is tied to cooperation with the states, improving school readiness and is conditional on expanded data collection.
In his budget speech, the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg claimed the government was committing $2 billion in funding for preschools, while a closer reading of the budget papers (page 60, Appendix D) indicates the actual amount is $1.6 billion over four years. This figure is based on projections of how women will respond to the changes – meaning the actual amount spent is likely to be considerably than what has been allocated.
And none of these funding arrangements will come into place until July 2022.
What the budget misses
The budget also fails to extend early childhood education to three year olds, leaving Australia languishing in the bottom third of countries in the OECD in relation to the rate of enrolment of three-year olds.
Perhaps the most glaring omission, however, is a plan to address the workforce problem in the early childhood education and care sector. By the government’s own reckoning, the sector will need an additional 30,000 educators and 7,000 additional teachers by mid 2024. This budget does nothing to address the plummeting rates of enrolment in vocational and university early childhood degree qualifications. Those who are already working in the sector are leaving faster than they are being replaced, often citing the low wages and lack of acknowledgment of the remarkable value and importance of their work. So even if the most optimistic predictions of increased participation that are built into this budget came to bear, it may be irrelevant because the workforce required to do the work just won’t be there.
What is needed – time for permanent funding
Systemic sector wide change is what is needed if Australia is to create and maintain a world leading and equitable early education system. Ongoing, guaranteed funding through Universal Access is necessary, as is a dramatic investment in attracting and retaining the skilled workforce that is required to operate the system.
The IEU has been fighting for a long term commitment to invest in early childhood education. Alongside organisations such as Thrive by Five and The Parenthood, IEU members have been standing up in defence of our nation’s young people and those workers who educate and care for them.
You can join the Thrive by Five campaign here and tell the federal government that Australia’s early learning and childcare system needs urgent reform for high quality, universally accessible early learning and childcare.