Lyn Connolly is a childcare veteran. She's been involved in the sector since the 1970s and heard every side of the debate about cost and quality but believes there is one salient fact often overlooked by the public and policy makers.
''If every single childcare provider shut up shop tomorrow, the whole economy would crumble,'' she says. ''People often lose sight of that.''
Connolly, who owns seven childcare centres around Sydney, has a point. According to the latest government figures, more than a million children use about 15,000 services, allowing 726,000 families to pursue employment or study. That's a significant proportion of the workforce. With those numbers in mind, it's not surprising that childcare was a hot topic in the lead-up to the election. Both sides of government made positive noises about improving the situation for the sector and the families who depend upon it to earn a living.
Labor promised to stand by its ambitious plan to lift standards by boosting the carer-to-child ratios and raising staff qualifications. The National Quality Framework would transform childcare workers into qualified educators, with a focus on early learning during some of the most important years of a child's life.
But the bold plan was going to cost money. Many providers argued they would have to hire more staff to fulfil the new ratio requirements, driving up fees which are already nudging $150 a day at some metropolitan centres.
The other area of contention was staff qualifications. Under the National Quality Framework, half of all staff at every childcare centre or preschool would be required to have (or be working towards) a diploma-level qualification in early childhood. Remaining staff would need a certificate III in early childhood education and a university-qualified early childhood teacher would be required in every service with more than 25 children.
While the industry broadly supported the framework, there were concerns about how appropriately qualified staff could be recruited and retained.
Childcare is notoriously poorly remunerated and beset by high staff turnover. Even a qualified worker can earn as little as $19 an hour, less than the cleaners who come to scrub the centre's toilets.
United Voice, the union which represents childcare workers, noted that 180 workers were leaving the sector a week with another large non-profit provider telling the Herald: ''We're losing them almost as fast as we can recruit them - it's unsustainable.''
Legislation that would have significantly improved wages was passed in June. The Early Years Quality Fund was a $300 million pot of money that would have given a pay rise of $3 to $6 an hour to 30 to 40 per cent of the sector's 100,000 workers over two years. It was regarded as a historic win by the union although many in the sector believed it should have been spread more fairly and extended beyond two years. But a few months later, it became clear the Coalition had concerns of its own about the fund. In a policy document released quietly two days before the election, it stated that it would not approve any further spending from the fund.
The move was made official last week when the federal Education Department sent a letter to providers warning them that the fund was under a review to be completed by the end of this month.
''If your organisation has not yet implemented wage increases or otherwise has not yet fulfilled the conditions of the Commonwealth's offer of funding, that offer of funding is hereby revoked,'' it stated. ''Your organisation should do nothing further to commit itself to wage increases in the expectation that EYQF funding will be made available for those wage increases.''
While Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley says no decision has been made about the future of the fund beyond keeping the money in the childcare portfolio, most in the sector assume the pay rise is off the cards for centres which were yet to sign contracts.
Prue Warrilow, the national convener of Australian Community Children's Services, says it will come as a devastating blow to the low-paid workers who were expecting a wage increase.
''It will dash the hopes of a whole heap of people,'' she says. ''This money would make a significant difference to the quality of their lives. It may not sound like a lot of money but it would pay for a tank of petrol and that's a big deal to these people.''
Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page says creation of the fund is the first acknowledgement of concerns about the sustainability of the sector. ''It was the first time the federal government acknowledged that they need to do something about wages if they want to ensure the viability of the sector,'' she says. ''The government has to subsidise wage increases because we know families can't afford to pay the full cost of proper wage rises through higher fees.''
In areas of Sydney and Melbourne where demand is high, parents feel they are forking out the equivalent of private school fees to have their kids in care, despite being able to claim 50 per cent of the cost through the childcare rebate.
Cheryl Shigrov runs four early learning centres and is a national convener of United Voice's Big Steps campaign, which pushed hard for the pay rise. She is furious about the prospect of the money being taken out of the hands of workers.
''We understand that we have a new government which may not agree with what the previous government has done but why punish the early childhood education sector by ripping $300 million away from workers?'' she asks. ''That is not a solution to the problems faced by the sector.''
Like Connolly, she believes it is time the community and the government paid due regard to the importance of the industry.
''Early childhood educators are not babysitters,'' she says. ''They are responsible for educating the next generation. They are integral to the growth and economy of this country. This pay rise was the first step in achieving the recognition they deserve.''
Shigrov is vowing to fight any move to revoke the wage increase.
For her part, Connolly is waiting for the outcome of the review, which she supports. ''The funding was only going to go to about one-third of workers,'' she notes.
''It should have been spread across all staff. And it was only supposed to last two years. What happens in two years when the money runs out? My view is, pay it fairly or don't pay it at all.''
Along with its review of the fund, the government will commission the Productivity Commission to inquire how the childcare system can be made more flexible, affordable and accessible.
The Coalition's Better Child Care and Early Learning policy document indicated that it would seek to slow down or abandon moves to lift child-to-staff ratios and pause requirements for higher staff qualifications.
While the National Quality Framework has ''in principle'' support, the Coalition says it is creating administrative headaches and pushing up fees. It's a point Connolly acknowledges.
''Parents' main concerns are about accessibility and affordability,'' she says.
''What we don't want to see is a situation where improvements in quality drive up the cost to the point where childcare is priced out of reach and children end up in backyard care. That's a bad result for everyone.''
-reprinted from the Sydney Morning Herald