The stress of the coronavirus crisis has laid bare the weaknesses in Australia’s childcare system but presents an opportunity to rethink the way it works.
Former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill says the reconstruction of the economy once the COVID-19 crisis has passed should start with children.
“This represents a massive opportunity for the nation to rebuild probably its most important service system,” he told AAP.
“COVID has revealed some of the weaknesses of our current system and how precarious our system of child care is.”
The federal government stepped in to make child care temporarily free for parents while guaranteeing a portion of income to providers.
Centres were at risk of closing as enrolments plummeted, with parents pulling their kids out because of health fears or having lost their jobs.
The sector pointed out it held the future of the economy in its hands, with parents relying on care to be able to keep working or get back into jobs after the crisis.
But Mr Weatherill said the importance of child care is about far more than its role in allowing adults to work.
“It should be regarded as a critical element of our early childhood development system rather than just an incident of employment policy,” he said.
As first steps to a new system, he’d like to see free child care extended indefinitely and universal access to preschools expanded to three-year-olds.
Mr Weatherill is working with the Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five initiative to push for an overhaul of early childhood development in Australia.
It wants to see:
* free care for all young children who need it;
* educators with good qualifications working in high-quality centres;
* integration of early learning, health and parental support services;
* connection with schools so teachers have a “line of sight” to kids from birth; and
* services that adapt to their local community context.
“Obviously there’s a big pathway between where we are now and what an ideal system would look like,” Mr Weatherill said.
But there are enormous pay-offs in terms of more children being ready for school and support given to vulnerable kids as early as possible.