Childcare reforms must not come at expense of quality: policy expert
23 July 2014
The Productivity Commission's recommendation for a single means-tested childcare subsidy is the most innovative aspect of its draft report, released yesterday.
The subsidy could facilitate a more sustainable and equitable system of public support for childcare and early childhood learning into the future. The subsidy is designed to be linked to what the Commission calls the "deemed reasonable cost" of quality care and education services.
Currently, government subsidies are calculated on the price that families pay for such services and under this system the cost of childcare has risen dramatically.
The principle that government support for the cost of childcare should be linked to the actual cost of providing a service is an innovation that would see government support focused on the necessary factors of service provision - rent, wages, educational resources, food, safety equipment and a small profit margin.
Parents who want their children to learn a second language, enjoy specialist dance or music classes would be free to fund those additional activities out of their own pocket.
The draft report affirms the importance of high quality care and argues the National Quality Framework must be retained and extended to all government funded services. But there is also a recommendation that the framework be modified. This is of concern, in particular the desire to introduce flexibility in how staffing ratios interact with qualification requirements.
Under current framework arrangements the number of university-trained early childhood education and care teaching staff employed in a centre is determined according to the total number of children attending a service. The Commission recommends relaxing this provision, basing the calculation instead on the number of children above three years old.
In this, and other recommendations made by the Commission in the draft report, the minimum qualifications of staff employed to work with zero to three-year-old children would also be set at the Certificate III level. This ignores the research evidence that demonstrates the positive relationship between highly trained staff and the education and care outcomes for zero to three-year-olds.
Other forms of "flexibility" in how the framework is implemented would include managing staff and qualification ratios on a weekly or monthly basis rather than in real time. These measures dilute the quality provisions.
Shift work, irregular work hours and long commutes mean that regular centre-based services do not suit all households. Part of the Commission's approach to improving childcare accessibility and affordability is the recommendation to extend public subsidies to households using qualified nannies and other Certificate III workers who satisfy the quality framework. Insisting on a minimal training requirement for nannies will go some way to ensuring the quality of publicly subsidized nanny care and education.
However this is only one side of the employment coin. The commission is silent on the issue of nanny working conditions and wages - a serious omission. International research evidence on the working conditions and wages of privately employed nannies shows that these, mostly women, are amongst the most exploited workers in the world. Children cared for by nannies need to be protected through regulation, but so do the workers themselves.
The Commission's recommendation to change the provisions of working visas for au pairs raises similar concerns. Families using au pairs would not be eligible to claim a public subsidy, but by expanding and normalising the au pair system Australian households will increasingly expect to be able to access vulnerable, young female labour to care for their children. Again, international research raises concerns about the vulnerability of these workers to exploitation, unpredictable work hours and physical and emotional abuse.
Australia has a relatively diverse set of services that can be strengthened. But the need for improved accessibility and affordability should not come at the expense of high quality provision or worker exploitation.
Dr Elizabeth Hill is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy and co-convenor of the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable.
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