Women and children were ignored in this year's federal budget. No new initiatives were announced and it was business as usual for the early childhood education and care sector. The Coalition government overlooked an opportunity to recognise the important role women will play in the nation’s economic recovery and ensure all children receive the best start in life though quality early childhood education.
High time for universal access
In March, we saw the federal government support free childcare for all Australian children attending long day care; however, this was cancelled in July and we reverted to the previous system, despite the many families who are experiencing financial hardships as a result of the pandemic.
It was an opportunity for the government to rethink its policies for Australian children and families and ensure universal access to quality early childhood education. But the federal government did not commit to universal access funding to be paid to the states so they could fund preschools.
Federal funding (universal access money) is only guaranteed until the end of 2021. What will happen in 2022 is not clear unless a further funding agreement is negotiated. In NSW we have free preschool until the end of 2020. In all likelihood, fees will be reintroduced for 2021.
With such a level of uncertainty how can we ensure all children have access to high quality early childhood education?
The Labor Party has seen the light. In the budget reply statement, Labor proposed an overhaul: the current system of childcare subsidies is to be replaced with one that gives all Australian children access to quality early childhood education free – or at a reduced cost for most.
Labor recognises the return on investment that early childhood education provides. It is great news for working parents who need long day care for their children. Many economists likewise recognise the economic returns to Australia that universal access to quality early childhood education provides.
However, Labor is yet to commit to full universal access funding for preschools. The Gillard government introduced it to ensure all children had access to preschool in the year prior to school. It has been very successful, with participation rates increasing.
The NSW government may say it’s committed to preschool education for three year olds, but it is not fully funded. The ACT is doing a better job.