Childcare policy failing regional Australia

Governments in Australia are trying to regulate childcare into an expensive, complex and gilt-edged early education system ⎯ while ignoring the impact on families in regional and remote areas who need access to affordable and convenient childcare.

Nearly 300,000 children in regional and remote areas receive formal childcare.

However, unlike capital cities where a glut of childcare centres is reported, access to childcare continues to be a problem in regional areas.

There are several reasons for this. First, it can be difficult for day care centres in regional areas to fill enough childcare places to cover their operating costs, given sparse populations and lower family incomes in regional communities.

Secondly, it is notoriously difficult for regional-based childcare services to recruit and retain enough qualified staff. In particular, finding qualified teachers can be a real challenge, as they often have better job opportunities in the school system.

Yet government regulations make it mandatory for childcare services to employ staff with approved qualifications in early education and care, despite there being little evidence that such qualifications are of significant benefit to children.

It is not surprising therefore that 11% of childcare services in remote areas had to apply for waivers from their staffing obligations in 2017, compared to just 3.9% per cent nationally.

These staffing requirements also push up the childcare services’ wage costs ⎯ which are passed on to parents through higher fees.

Staffing rules are not the only costly regulation. Childcare services are also required to submit to regular assessments by the national childcare authority and put together detailed quality improvement plans ⎯ another source of red tape.

And the burden of regulation always falls hardest on small services.

Little wonder then that childcare services in remote locations tend to be rated lower than urban services, when assessed against the national quality standards.

This is why other forms of childcare ⎯ for example, mobile services, home-based care and informal childcare ⎯ are so important to families living outside capital cities.

Yet despite taxpayer subsidies of $8 billion this year (rising to $9.5 billion within four years), these types of care are not supported by government to the same extent.

This is bad enough; but by driving up the cost of childcare, stringent regulation also undermines the effectiveness of subsidies for formal childcare.

Perhaps this is why, despite spending so much on childcare subsidies, the federal government has established another, separate funding system to break down “barriers” to accessing childcare in regional and remote communities.

The government’s Community Child Care Fund is intended to provide over $115 million in grants to eligible childcare services, including long day care and family day care services at risk of being financially unviable.

However, there is no guarantee the Community Child Care Fund will solve regional access issues.

Bizarrely, most of the funding under a similar, previous scheme went to city-based childcare services ⎯ contrary to its very purpose.

But more importantly, why is the government trying to plug the gaps in childcare supply across Australia, instead of making it easier for these services to open and stay viable in the first place?

A more flexible approach to regulation is clearly needed if governments truly want childcare to be accessible and affordable for families in regional areas. However, at the moment, childcare policy is working at divergent purposes ⎯ promoting subjective notions of quality through costly regulation while also trying to improve access to childcare for working families.

And this reflects the irony in childcare policy.

By making it so difficult and expensive to operate a childcare service, fewer services will be available for families who genuinely need childcare.

There will be little benefit for families in regional areas if they miss out because childcare is unaffordable, or it is too hard for childcare services to comply with costly and complex regulation.

Eugenie Joseph is a Senior Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.