Australian childcare; a very partial wishlist

I was inspired by my baby suddenly being given a daycare place, and my ambivalence about placing her in daycare as a young baby, to remember all my frustrations with the Australian pre-school daycare system, and to suggest what, from my perspective, would be considerable improvements.

This is a very parent-focussed and rather pragmatic list; you’ll note I haven’t suggested nationalising daycare! I likewise have only very slightly spoken to cost issues, parents who have struggled to afford daycare, what’s your wishlist? For other perspectives, I’m looking forward to the Productivity Commission’s findings (although I doubt I’ll agree with much policy which the government builds on it, we’ll see), and I’d love to hear from people who can talk about the workers’ perspective, especially following the axing of the Early Years Quality Fund.

That said, here’s my “imperfect world” daycare wishlist:

Improve the ability of parents and guardians to plan

Two toddlers walking

Toddlers by madgerly@Flickr

Ideally, daycare places are guaranteed to children well in advance, coinciding with the end of their parents’ parental leave.

Presently, many daycare centres do not have immediate vacancies, especially for children under 24 months of age, who require a 1:4 carer to child ratio. They therefore maintain waiting lists. Parents do not know when their child is likely to reach the top of the waiting list, nor whether the waiting list even functions as it is assumed to. Parents list their child at every conceivable centre, sometimes without even an acknowledgment of receipt of their application (to this day, I do not know if my then-university’s daycare received my son’s application four years ago) and almost invariably without any ongoing contact beyond the approximately yearly “please confirm if your child still requires care” email. Parents may, at some future point, get a phone call saying that there’s a place available, by the way, enrol TODAY or it’s gone. Or they may not.

Centres in turn have no idea how long their list really is, or how many parents they will need to call to find a child still waiting for a place. They usually maintain their own private waiting lists. Most do not disclose either on their websites nor when acknowledging a waiting list application (if they do) how long recently enrolled children waited for a place, nor their policy for awarding places. Aside from the mandated priority for children in danger, followed by children of working parents, many, for understandable reasons, give priority to siblings of already enrolled children, for example, but they seldom disclose it.

Waiting lists are expensive with many centres charging $20 to $100+ to waitlist a child, and parents encouraged (by each other, by early childhood nurses, by employers) to waitlist at every conceivable centre if they want a place. Some centres are ethical in their handling of this — one discouraged me from waitlisting, disclosing that their lease was under review and they might be closing in 2015 — but many accept waitlist applications indefinitely even while informing parents who specifically ask that there are unlikely to ever be a place for their child.

There’s presumably some chicken-and-egg here: parents waitlist at as many centres as they can afford because they can’t tell whether any given centre will admit their child before they reach school age, but centres prefer that parents not waitlist at scores of centres because it makes it difficult to judge the real length of their waiting list and to fill vacancies, so they charge a fee to discourage the practice. But charging waitlist fees is not as good a solution to this problem as centralised, transparent waitlists would be, which would allow both centres and parents to plan.

It is an epic waste of everyone’s time. If we can’t have the ideal situation, it would be good to know (to within, say, two months) when a child will reach the top of waiting lists. Instead, what we have is essentially a black box.

I’ve often wondered about the employment issues arising from this, in that working families with children in daycare may not be able to move in search of better pay, conditions or advancement, due to inability to secure a daycare spot anywhere else within a reasonable timeframe.

I’d much prefer, if waitlist I must, to waitlist at a single central location for centres of my preference, have estimates of each of their waiting times and policies provided at the time I initially sign up, and regular updates sent. Imagine this for example:

Please select which centres you are wait listing for:

  • Centre A (2km from your workplace, 10km from your home, 15 children waitlisted, estimated date of vacancy January 2015)
  • Centre B (12km from your workplace, 1km from your home, 14 children waitlisted, estimated date of vacancy February 2015)
  • Centre C (5km from your workplace, 7km from your home, 5 children waitlisted, estimated date of vacancy September 2014)

The ability to plan might also prevent the enrolment of some young babies, like mine, because the parents would not be motivated to take an early offer of a place in case it’s the only one they’ll get in the foreseeable future. (My baby would likely have been enrolled in June or July, if I had an assured place, giving me less months of Michael Leunig feeling sorry for my baby. As it is, an April place is far better than a February one, Leunig, Mem Fox and Mia Freedman be damned.)

Make waiting lists transparent, impartial and fair

In addition, it’s unclear whether the waiting list is actually as effective way of getting a place as one would hope. In 2013, Andie Fox wrote in Daily Life:

I can’t do this, I complained to my mother, how can I go to work knowing my child is [at a poor quality centre]? She thought it would simply be a matter of choosing a better daycare centre and booking my child in. But it doesn’t work like that, I tried to tell her. You’re on waiting lists from the time you are pregnant and the lists are long and you wait hopefully for your turn. By now I knew of a care centre with a better reputation through my mother-friend network, but I wasn’t on their waiting list, I hadn’t realised there was such variation in quality when I had been pregnant.

My mother thought none of this should stop her and in the end it didn’t – she cajoled her way in and secured a place for my toddler in the better centre.

Andie and I discussed this in person a few weeks later: this is hidden knowledge. Most people put their name on the waiting list and try to be patient believing that their turn will come, that places will be awarded to the top name on the list, that if they have to wait 24 months at least everyone else does too. They don’t realise that there is a group of people who are charming their way into centres or otherwise jumping the queue.

And even if they do, they may not be able to join that group. I’ve been advised to do similar things. Book my child in for casual days, so that the staff can see we’re a “nice family”. (This is code: we’re privileged on most axes.) Ring the centre director first thing every Monday morning to “just check” how my waitlist place is up to. (I have to wonder about the likelihood that annoying them like this will work, but nevertheless I was advised to do this. I dislike phones enough to not have tried.) It’s not only hidden knowledge; it advantages people who have the money to pay for unneeded casual days, the privilege to look like a desirable family to centres when doing a child’s casual pickup or dropoff, or their cajoling visits; and the time needed to do all of this hidden work of both waitlisting themselves and ingratiating themselves with several centres.

In fairness to the centres, I should note that in the end both my children received daycare places without me doing this hidden work. My older child was offered an immediate nursery place in a centre that had vacancies, my younger child was offered a place from the waiting list (although I don’t know if we were given a boost up the list for any reason, I only know that I didn’t ask or work for one). But I had no way of knowing when or whether this was likely to happen, or of how many children were admitted earlier because their parents knew what to say to the director.

Support breastfeeding relationships

Because I work from home, and my baby’s daycare is very near my house, I am thrilled that I will be able to visit her for nursing sessions and plan to take advantage of this as much as possible. But only people whose children are in daycares at or very near their workplace can do this.

Daycare centres are not concentrated in business districts but in residential districts. This does have some benefits (not having to take the child on your commute, being able to use the centre even when you are too ill to work or otherwise at home for the day) but means that visiting to nurse a baby, or comfort a distressed child, or simply enjoy lunch together occasionally, is not possible.

In general, the geography of childcare centres seems very arbitrary and not designed to particularly suit any need.

Have stable fees

If you are eligible, childcare fees are reimbursed by the government in the form of the childcare benefit (means-tested) and the childcare rebate (not means-tested). The first fluctuates when you update your income estimate with Centrelink (this happens automatically at the beginning of each financial year, with Centrelink assuming you get a small raise unless you manually edit it), the second is capped at $7500 per year, having the effect that if you spend your $7500 before the end of the financial year, it cuts off suddenly and causes daycare fees to suddenly effectively double. The ability of affected people to project the extra expenditure towards the end of the year and plan and save for it varies, to put it mildly. (It’s possible to be paid this in arrears at the end of the quarter or the year, and the latter means the fees are stable, but the number of people who can afford to defer a payment of $7500 into the following financial year is even smaller.)

The entire benefit system for childcare is complex and arbitrary. Obviously I am hoping the Productivity Commission’s findings and any resulting changes to childcare payments don’t massively increase my personal or anyone else’s out-of-pocket, but a change where I pay roughly the same amount each week would be welcomed.

Categories: economics, gender & feminism, work and family


9 replies

  1. As a parent who has found childcare expensive enough to sometimes question the economics of me working, scarce enough to quit a highly paid job because I couldn’t get care before maternity leave ran out, and trying to juggle breastfeeding with a non-bf-friendly workplace, here’s my wishlist:
    Nationalise childcare.
    With fees reduced by a government subsidy enough to cover the bare minimum safety & quality requirements, same way education is funded.
    And every child guaranteed a place from the age of four months, when the current government paid parental leave scheme ceases. Parents who can afford to pay more will no doubt choose a more expensive privately funded scheme, just as they do with schools. But at least those parents who have low paid employment can get back to work before the money runs out and they have to choose between rent and childcare payments. Workers might also end up better paid if their salaries were funded more through government subsidy direct to the centre and less by parents with cashflow concens who then have to get a rebate from government weeks or months later.
    And government-monitored quality and training standards for all paid care, including nannies and au pairs, to ensure that childcare workers are supported to do their job well. At present, these only apply to long day care centres and some family day care schemes – not to private in home paid care.

  2. [Update: fixed quotation, sorry it took me a while to notice!]
    Related article yesterday, Quality childcare requires regulation:

    Trisha Jha invites feminists to support childcare deregulation using the spurious reasoning that somehow feminists want to work so badly that they would be prepared to settle for an open market of care for their children with no quality frameworks in place.
    She needs a history lesson. Affordable, quality care for children has been at the heart of the feminist agenda since the ’60s. Feminists understood the relationship between employment for women and quality care was crucial, and many of us deferred our working lives because of the absence of quality care.

  3. Wendy McCarthy is 100% right in that article. As a feminist, I want to be in paid work, but not at the expense of other women’s employment security or my childrens’ wellbeing. An unregulated childcare market means labour competing for who is willing to take the lowest pay, no ongoing training or support from employers, and low job satisfaction.
    Equality Rights Alliance did a study a few years back on women in low paid work. Unlike most women in retail or hospitality jobs, women in childcare jobs said that job satisfaction (which was all about the quality of care they could provide children) was one of the biggest factors in their staying in the industry. If they could get a pay rate that befits their responsibility and would allow them to at least pay the rent in a major city, perhaps we wouldn’t see as many childcare workers leaving the industry.

  4. Daycare centres are not concentrated in business districts but in residential districts. This does have some benefits (not having to take the child on your commute, being able to use the centre even when you are too ill to work or otherwise at home for the day) but means that visiting to nurse a baby, or comfort a distressed child, or simply enjoy lunch together occasionally, is not possible.

    Perhaps this due to real estate costs? Space in the CBD, especially if you want a reasonable amount of outdoor play area for children is generally going to be a lot more expensive than in the suburbs. Maybe just another argument for encouraging more businesses and government organisations out of the CBD.
    re: lack of childcare places – IIRC there was a report a couple of years ago that was saying there’s actually a surplus of places overall, but there is a huge shortage in specific areas. I’d guess that it depends on what days you need as well – my experience was it was quite easy to get childcare on Mondays and Fridays but much harder Tue-Thu when more people want to work. I’m not sure how youhandle uneven demand like that well.

  5. More childcare centres, centralised waiting lists, more family daycare.

    More money put into childcare by the government to fund places and pay workers.

  6. My experience was that it was much easier to get childcare Mondays and Fridays, rather than Tuesday to Thursday, when you didn’t have to pay for long weekends. Not just the staff wages for long weekends, you pay the regular price, including the food the kids don’t eat, the utilities the kids don’t use and the owner’s profits.

  7. Yes. In NSW in 2014 there are four public holidays that fall on a Monday and two on Fridays. (Not counting Boxing Day, since almost all childcares also have a closure for a couple of weeks over Christmas and New Year.) Of those, three of the Mondays (Easter Monday, Queen’s birthday, Labour Day) occur every year, as does one of the Fridays (Good Friday), and when a date-based holiday occurs on a weekend, the following Monday will almost always be a gazetted holiday.
    I’d guess that it’s rarely working parent or employee preference for a Tue–Thu work week that leads to the uneven demand mid-week. It’s a combination of the public holiday factor, and the overlap in demand for places between people who work at the beginning of the week (Mon to Wed, Mon to Thu) with those who work at the end (Wed to Fri, Tue to Fri); both groups want mid-week places.
    In terms of balancing uneven demand, centres do work on it already. A sufficiently popular one (ie, one with a real waiting list) can simply do what mine does: require that either a Monday or Friday be included in your enrolled days. (Their other requirement is a minimum of two days a week, that’s not uncommon either and nor is a requirement for contiguous days. Some centres just enrol in blocks and flat-out tell you you can have, eg, Mon–Tue, Wed–Fri, or Mon–Fri, and never offer anything else.) Presumably more regulated or nationalised childcare would increase those kinds of restrictions, just as you do not get to choose your child’s days or hours at a public school (or any school).

  8. An idea that has been percolating in my head for a couple of months is family-run day centre combined with grandparent involvement in childcare. The family member along with several other employees runs the centre out of their home. Grandparents or guardians then fill out the child care ratio. I think it solves the issue of the elderly being lonely and bored. It also means that elderly grandparents with mobility issues have support to look after their grandchildren without feeling like they can’t care for them well enough.
    Does that sound like a good idea?

  9. jess: it might have its place, but I’m a bit reluctant to further institutionalise replacing the free childcare labour of mothers with the free childcare labour of grandparents (most often, I suspect, the maternal grandmother).
    It would also only be a very partial solution. I do not live near my parents, and both of my parents still work and will until at least one and probably both of my children are school aged. This wouldn’t be uncommon for grandparents of young children, who are often in their 50s or early 60s (and becoming a grandparent in one’s 40s is not at all uncommon and 30s not common but it happens), at least for their eldest grandchildren, and may become more common as the pension age rises as it seems likely to do.
    It might have a place among a plurality of childcare possibilities, although I think the issue about women’s labour and women’s family labour remains.
    Supporting disabled carers of children, at any age, would be excellent.

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