Universal Access to Early Education and Childhood Learning

Young families should be able to provide their kids with the best start in life, while allowing men and women to be equals in the workplace.

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All parents should know that, no matter their life circumstances, their children will have the best possible start in life.

As wages fail to keep pace with the cost of living, more households need two incomes to make ends meet. One parent used to be able to support a family by working 5 days a week. Now many households contribute 10 days of work a week between two parents, and still struggle – with much of the benefit of the second income eaten away by the rising costs of early childhood learning and care.18 Ironically, families may need to work more, and see their children less, to help cover the costs of early childhood learning. This is even more challenging for single parent families, since more two-income households also means a greater demand for childcare, which leads to a scarcity of places and higher costs – especially when for-profit operators form the majority of the market.

It’s also clear that women who want to work are still bearing the burden of unpaid work at the cost of their careers. In February 1978, only 43.4% of women had a job or were seeking employment.19 Today 66% of women are working.20 This leap has been transformative for our society. But women still face structural barriers, exclusion and oppressive workplace cultures. 61% of women with a child under five work part time, while only 8% of men with young children do the same.21

A full year of paid parental leave and universal access to free public early childhood learning would empower more women to pursue careers. Two-income families would regain the benefit of their second income, which could actually give them the freedom to work less and spend more time with their children. And single-parent families would no longer be forced to make impossible choices between working to support their children and having care and early childhood learning for them.

We need sensible, 21st century policy arrangements so that families can provide their children with the best start in life, while creating more gender equality in the workplace:

1. A full year of paid parental leave:

The ability to spend time with a newborn child is vitally important to parents - and in an economy as prosperous as ours, we should not be forced to choose between our work and important moments with our family. Parental leave should be paid at 80% of a person’s full time salary, capped at a maximum $60,000 payment for the year.22 Three months should be reserved separately for the mother and father as a non-transferrable allocation - to encourage men to play a greater role in early childhood.23 The remaining six months can be split between the parents as they see fit, and taken concurrently or consecutively.

2. Universal, public kindergartens:

From the age of one, all children should be guaranteed a space in a publicly funded kindergarten or daycare centre - allowing both parents to work a normal working week should they wish to, or because they need to, without worrying about the cost of childcare.

In Norway, 90% of all children under the age of 5 are in a public kindergarten - for an average of 35 hours per week. The cost of admission is capped at $395 per month, with a 30% discount for a second child, and 50% discount for the third.24

3. Professionally paid early childhood educators.

Valuing children means allowing them to grow and learn with qualified and experienced educators with whom they can form ongoing, secure attachments in a nurturing environment. The most important indicator and guarantee of quality early childhood education are engaged and stimulating interactions between educators and children. And yet research shows that educators are leaving the sector because of low pay, poor conditions, and the lack of professional recognition. Every time an educator leaves the sector, it’s children, their families and the quality of care and education available in our society that suffers. 

For too long, early childhood educators’ work has been economically and socially undervalued due to its historical origins in domestic unpaid labour performed by women. Modern, high quality early childhood education is a complex field that requires educators with significant professional skill and knowledge to assist with the emotional, cognitive and social development of children. Early childhood educators deserve professional pay for the challenging work they perform. But parents cannot afford to pay more, it is time for governments to step up and fund equal pay.

18Natsem modelling shows that a second low-income parent returning to work full time, will earn just $4.55 per hour after taking into account taxes, childcare costs, and lost government support.

19Alexandra Heron, “More women than ever are in the workforce but progress has been glacial”, The Conversation, 16 March 2016.

20Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force, Australia cat. no. 6202.0, February 2018

21Australian Bureau of Statistics, Gender Indicators, Australia cat. no. 4125.0, September 2017

22Similar to the Swedish, Icelandic, Nordic and Finnish systems.

23Apolitical, “How a parental leave policy changed the way Sweden sees fatherhood”, Case Study, June 2017.

24Kristin Holte Haug & Jan Storø, “Kindergartens in Norway: From care for the few to an universal right for all children”, Child Research Net, February 2013.