ABC Radio Central Coast – support needed for early learning services

Thursday, 12 August 2021

SCOTT LEVI, HOST: Amanda Rishworth is the Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education. Good morning.

AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: Good morning. It’s great to be with you.

LEVI: So what’s the problem? Is that typical that local provider, they’re losing apparently six grand a week, which is the money that it costs to pay the staff?

RISHWORTH: Look it is a very common story, I’ve been listening to providers across New South Wales, and in the central coast in particular. They find themselves having to keep their doors open, of course, because they’re looking after the children of essential workers. But as time has gone by, and people have been asked to stay at home, a lot of families are keeping their children at home, and this has increased over the time of this lockdown. What the government said is, of course they didn’t want the pressure of families having to pay for care they weren’t receiving. So they made it legal for providers to waive the gap fees for those children that weren’t attending. But this put providers in a really difficult position. If they waive the gap fee, they actually lose a huge amount of revenue, and are not able to put on staff. Unfortunately, the answer from the government has been well just stand down staff. Well, that’s a problem in itself. One, if you’re still trying to look after essential workers’ children, you need those staff. But two, when the economy gets going again, people are going to want that after school hours care, and if you’ve had to let people go, then you might not be able to service those families. So that’s one choice. The second choice that providers have is to keep asking families for fees. Well that could have a situation where families then un-enrol if they’re not using care, and that means those services don’t get any money at all. They don’t even get the money from the government if children un-enrol. So both options really put the service’s viability, and of course, the employment of those educators, under threat.

LEVI: And what’s the story with the parents? So they get their fee help from the government, they still get that. But they keep their place, the children in that child care facility, because they’re hard to come by, but they get the gap waived? Is that how it works?

RISHWORTH: That’s right. So the subsidy would still go to the service. So if a family was paying 50 per cent gap fee, then the service still gets 50 per cent, but the families wouldn’t have to pay the extra 50 per cent and their place would be saved. The trouble with that is services rely on 100 per cent of that fee to pay for everything and to keep people employed. So that’s the challenge there at the moment. But of course, families don’t want to pay large gap fees, 50 per cent is a lot, if they’re actually not using the service, if they’ve chosen to stay home. So it is a very precarious position for providers to be in. But families of course often need that fee relief, because at the moment some might have been stood down from their jobs, but hope to be re-employed after this lockdown. So it provides a real tension between families and providers, and both are under enormous strain here.

LEVI: So what’s the solution?

RISHWORTH: Well, there is a solution. The government’s been saying the solution is that services can apply for the business support payments. Unfortunately, the qualifying period of when you had to show that your revenue went down to get the business support payment is right at the beginning of the pandemic. And so right at the beginning, most services didn’t see a decline because they stayed open, unlike pubs and clubs that had to shut immediately. So many actually can’t get that business support payment. So what I’ve been calling on the government to do is implement an early childhood specific package. This was done in Victoria last year, and what happened was parents had their gap fees waived, but kept their places, and the government kept paying their contribution to the services. But there was a top up payment for these services to stay open and keep their people employed. That’s what the government did in Victoria last year. What I’m saying is that worked really well, services were pleased with that, families were really pleased, and it kept the sector ready to reopen as soon as they came out of lockdown. So that’s what I’m calling the government to do is, is tailor something specifically to the sector. These services many are small businesses employing often local people, they need to be kept afloat. And that would be the well-tailored solution, rather than relying on this generic business support payment.

LEVI: Let’s hope in this era of consensus and bipartisanship, while we’re fighting a common enemy, that you’re all on the same page in Federal Parliament to look after the sector. Thanks for joining us.

ENDS

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