PM weighs in on fresh push for free or cheap childcare

Families could end up paying just $10 a day for three days a week of high-quality early childhood education as momentum builds to reform the troubled system.

Early learning and parenting groups have rallied around a Centre for Policy Development plan to fix the ailing system, including a proposal for three days a week of free or low-cost learning for all children.

The think tank also wants the childcare subsidy to be abolished and replaced with a “child-centred” model where early years education centres are funded directly.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese welcomed the “important contribution” to the debate and said Labor went to the election with the ambition of delivering universal childcare.

“Universal child care provision, as it is in a range of other countries, is something that is a valued national asset,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

“Early education is good for children, it’s good for families, but it’s also good for our economy.”

Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway have all legislated entitlements for early childhood services, and studies have shown where there is free or low-cost universal education available, attendance tends to be high.

Universal or low-cost early learning could boost tax revenue in Australia each year by as much as $3.2 billion and economic growth by $6.9 billion from parents working more hours, CPD modelling suggests.

The federal government was waiting on the final report from the Productivity Commission before taking its next steps, the prime minister said.

Preliminary findings from the microeconomic policy body as well as a separate probe by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found the system to be complex, costly, and have patchy availability in some parts of the country.

Centre for Policy Development chief executive officer Andrew Hudson said Australia’s system was broken.

About 22 per cent of kids start school developmentally vulnerable and more than 120,000 children did not attend early learning at all due to activity test rules and other reasons.

“We have these universal systems, whether it’s schooling, Medicare or superannuation, and why should we stop that universal public schooling at age five?” Mr Hudson told AAP.

Children experiencing disadvantage should be entitled to up to five days a week of free care, the think tank recommended.

Georgie Dent, the chief executive of parent and carer group The Parenthood, said replacing the childcare subsidy system with direct funding for centres would ease pressure on families.

“The current subsidy system is overly complex and creates unnecessary barriers for families,” she said.

Jay Weatherill, of Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five campaign, said parents were struggling to afford early childhood education and languishing on year-long wait lists.

He said primary carers, mainly women, were paying the price through interrupted careers.

Mr Hudson said getting women back into the workforce was the “single biggest productivity gain we can make”.

“This is just a classic win-win,” he said.

With families in rural and regional Australia finding it particularly hard to access affordable early learning services, federal politicians were set to meet with rural parents, early childhood educators and local councillors to discuss the topic on Wednesday.

Regional Development Minister Kristy McBain and Nationals MP Darren Chester were among the expected attendees of Thrive by Five’s virtual event designed to show the federal leaders why universal early learning services was important for country families.


Poppy Johnston
(Australian Associated Press)


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