ECEC unites in unprecedented call for additional Govt support as centre closures intensify
In an unprecedented wave of unity and singleness of purpose, voices from across the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector have come together to call on the Federal Government to fast track additional support measures to help mitigate increasing numbers of centre closures across the country, driven by rapid declines in occupancy levels as early onset of holidays coupled with parents adhering to Government advice to keep children home trigger mass withdrawals.
Appearing on the ABC’s RN Drive program Sam Page CEO of Early Childhood Australia (ECA), the largest ECEC sector peak body, said “we have now started to see services close. I have had a list come through of about 50 services that have closed already but I think that will only intensify as we move into next week.”
This position was echoed by Elizabeth Death CEO of the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia who said “our services have been trying to stay open so they can do what they do best, educate and care for our children in a safe, secure, supportive and hygienic environment, however it is at a critical point where it is no longer viable to remain open” for financial reasons.
And Paul Mondo President of the Australian Childcare Alliance (ACA) who said “The numbers vary from centre to centre, but with attendance rates dropping on average between 30 and 80% per centre, this has been a huge blow to individual centres” with ACA QLD adding “Over 400,000 Queensland parents are facing the immediate (and potentially permanent) collapse of early learning services”.
This collective call for help was not just limited to peak body representatives but echoed right across the sector with calls from advocates, operators, unions and educators.
Tamika Hicks, who operates a Victorian service, noted a 30 per cent drop in occupancy over a one week period – something which is an unsustainable amount to absorb into operational budgets. Based on a continuation of this trend, Ms Hicks said “we’ll be lucky to last two weeks.”
CEO of YWCA Canberra, Frances Crimmins, was explicit in outlining the impact the decline in occupancy is having on services “Without income from the childcare subsidy, most centres will be closed within a few weeks and, by that, I mean insolvent.”
Calls for action come despite Tehan assurances and ahead of Education Council meeting
The unprecedented collective call for action comes despite comments designed to reassure the sector from Federal Minister Dan Tehan made in an interview on Wednesday and reiterated in a press release yesterday, and underlines the urgency of the situation at hand.
Ms Page noted that “we have been hearing from the Department that there is work being done behind the scenes but we have been hearing that since last Friday” and Ms Death noted “We have engaged with Government on a viability package and urgently need more detail and timelines on how this is being considered so we can preserve the service and the employment of our workforce.”
Mr Mondo urged the Government to act stating in no uncertain terms that “Without additional funding to support early learning services through these coming weeks, many services will be forced to close and will not have the capital to reopen once the crisis passes.”
Mr Tehan will be meeting in Melbourne later today with the State and Territory ministers of education at the Education Council meeting where it is hoped that he addresses the crisis enveloping the sector and progresses financial support mechanisms therein.
Allowable absences boost well intentioned but shortcomings are a problem
On the matter of allowable absences, a key component of the Government’s initial support package, Ms Page noted that whilst measures put in place to extend absences from 42 days to 62 days were well intentioned, they were not of real assistance to families, who are “objecting to having to pay the fees when not using the services.”
“All it really means” she continued “is that you can keep your children at home but you still have to pay to keep your booking. Families are saying clearly that they can’t afford it, and don’t want to pay.”
This dynamic has become the main challenge for centres as they navigate COVID-19 related withdrawals of children, due largely to the fact that Child Care Subsidy (CCS) can only be claimed if a parent contribution is also received as part of the payment.
If parents are not able to pay their “gap” withdrawal becomes the logical next step.
To mitigate this, ACA Queensland have said “As a first step, the Federal Government must immediately allow providers to waive the gap fees that parents must pay and continue to fund their places with the CCS.”
Such a measure would enable services to secure cash flows from the CCS without the parents having to pay any additional fees if children were not attending the service for COVID-19 related reasons. Currently this type of arrangement is prohibited by the legislation governing the CCS, unless the centre is mandated to close for public health reasons.
The ECA, requested in a letter to the Minister sent earlier in the week, have also called for an immediate suspension of the activity test to allow for parents out of work to continue to access care, and also to help mitigate the increase in debt that lower activity precipitates in the CCS calculation and application methodology.
Peaks highlight importance of sector in short and medium term merits support now
Another common thread through the sector responses and calls to action is the need to not only continue to provide an essential service to society and protect educator and teacher jobs in the short term, but also to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place to support an Australia wide economic recovery at the conclusion of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms Death said “We urge the Australian Government to further consider the disastrous impact closure of early learning services across the country will have on families now and in the future when we commence economic recovery and business resumes.”
Likewise, Ms Page said that the ECEC sector would be a critical element of moving Australia into a recovery phase.
“We know we have the capability to give people the childcare that they need, and once Australia gets back to work, we are going to need those services to be fully functioning. The recovery phase will take a lot longer if services are closing down and operators are walking away” she emphasised.
A position reaffirmed by Mr Mondo who said “We understand the entire economy needs assistance at this challenging time, but without child care it’s going to be extremely difficult for Australia to bounce back from this economic disaster.”
*Please note this article has been updated to include comments made by the Australian Childcare Alliance in a press release published after our initial publishing deadline.