35% of Australians live in Childcare Deserts – Unpacking the Mitchell Institute’s latest report
The Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy at Victoria University has released a new report in which it concludes that 35 per cent of all Australians live in “Childcare Deserts” -communities that suffer from a structural undersupply of childcare services.
The report titled Deserts and Oases: How accessible is childcare in Australia? was authored by Education Policy Fellow Peter Hurley and his team and partially funded by Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five Initiative, and is the first publicly released nationwide examination of child care service supply relative to demand in Australia.
This article aims to unpack the key findings of the report and summarise the major conclusions that its authors reach.
Key report findings
As noted above about nine million Australians, 35 per cent of the population, live in areas where the supply of child care services relative to the number of children in the community who may want to access those services is acutely mismatched.
These neighbourhoods are classified as childcare deserts and as a rule of thumb have only 0.333 license places available for each child seeking care.
Why is this finding significant?
In the first instance it is significant because it challenges the prevailing view amongst some ECEC providers that oversupply is the dominant challenge facing the sector as supposed to undersupply.
It also highlights that large segments of the Australian population live in areas where children who may want, or need, ECEC services simply cannot access them which in turn raises questions as to whether the market based model that governs child care in Australia is serving the broader populations needs equitably.
What else did the report conclude?
The research uncovered a number of key takeaways over and above the high level snapshot mentioned above including:
- Major cities have very few neighbourhoods with no childcare supply and a medium number of childcare places per child above national levels. That being said, around 29 per cent of the population live in areas classified as childcare deserts.
- Regional areas, both inner and outer, have significantly higher proportions of their communities that live in childcare deserts at 45 per cent and 61 per cent respectively.
- Remote areas experienced the highest degree of childcare scarcity with with in excess of 78 per cent of communities living in childcare deserts in remote and very remote areas
The report identified that Western Australia, followed by South Australia appeared to be the most undersupplied regions, with Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania clustered more or less together around the national median but with varying proportions in the undersupplied segment and Queensland and the ACT presenting as having a more balanced supply / demand landscape.
In addition it was observed that less well served neighbourhoods tended to be lower socio economic in nature and more ethnically and linguistically diverse.
Is there anything else we should be aware of?
Yes, one thing in particular which focuses on the assumptions used in the calculation of the number of communities that fall into the child care deserts and child care oases categories.
Like in all data based analyses authors are required to make a set of assumptions that govern how data inputs are gathered and applied within the methodology and which can impact the outcomes of their research.
In the case of Deserts and Oases the authors have elected to exclude family day care license places from the supply side of the ledger and to not exclude families that choose to access care outside of the communities they live in from the demand side of the ledger both of which when combined will serve to increase the proportion of communities deemed in scarce supply, and by extension understate those that are in abundant supply.
94,710 families used FDC services in Q1 2021 according to DESE’s Child Care in Australia Report which is not a small number, even when compared to the 816,880 who used centre based care and although it is very difficult to gauge the extent of “destination” child care it will be a factor, particularly in communities where long commutes to work are common.
That being said, it is important to recognise that the overall conclusions raised in this report remain intact. The distribution of accessibility to child care in Australia is concerningly uneven and the report’s contribution to raising awareness about this dynamic is significant.
What are the key policy implications highlighted by the authors in the report?
As noted, the key findings of the report highlight that the provision of childcare in Australia is unequal and that regional and remote communities are those that suffer the most from ECEC scarcity and the most disadvantaged communities, those that may need it most, have the least access to child care.
The report observes that “these findings present governments with serious policy challenges” and expands on the following key themes:
- Australia is not fully capitalising on the long term benefits that ECEC can bring to disadvantaged children and a rethink of the current market based model, that disincentivises investment in these communities, needs to take place
- Reimagining an ECEC system that has at its heart a child care guarantee for all Australian families, as presented by the Centre for Policy Development, would enable Governments to predict the need of services and respond accordingly.
Jay Weatherill, the CEO of Five by Thrive, concludes the Foreword of the report by noting that “We should insist on policies that will make Australia the greatest place in the world to grow up, and the greatest place in the world to be a parent. Australia needs universal accessible high quality and affordable early learning for every child, regardless of their postcode or family circumstances.”
To read the Deserts and Oases: How accessible is childcare in Australia? please click here.
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