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Lack of childcare is killing regional towns, communities warn

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Katina CurtisThe Nightly
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VideoChildcare costs are back in the spotlight this morning with a new ACCC report revealing subsidies have lowered out-of-pocket expenses for families

Regional and remote communities fear they will still miss out on childcare despite the Government’s focus on improving access for parents, because of the particular difficulties of finding staff, warning it is “killing towns”.

More than 50 organisations representing early childhood advocates, regional communities and businesses, and agricultural groups have joined forces to warn the Federal Government that its mooted overhaul of childcare cannot involve a one-size-fits-all approach.

They say that the goal of universal access is just as important in regional areas as in big cities – but it won’t necessarily be solved without government intervention.

The Government set aside an unspecified amount of money — believed to be billions — in the Budget to fund an increase in childcare educator wages. Last year it increased fee subsidies for parents.

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However, it is resisting further changes, such as easing the activity test on subsidies, until it receives a Productivity Commission review of the whole early childhood education system in the middle of the year aimed at creating universal access.

In a joint statement to be issued on Tuesday, the Access for Every Child Coalition called for incentives to boost supply in rural and remote areas, a targeted workforce strategy, and interim solutions such as more flexibility for in-home care.

Kitty Prodonovich, chief executive of Regional Chambers of Commerce and Industry WA which is part of the alliance, said there just was not enough childcare in rural towns and the difficulty in attracting staff meant many centres could only run at half or a quarter of their capacity.

Compounding this was the fact most people who moved to regional towns were then separated from their family support network, like grandparents, who otherwise might fill the gaps in care.

That meant there was a whole potential workforce who could not take up jobs because they had to stay home and care for children.

“It means that we’re not getting access to those workers,” Ms Prodonovich said.

Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Kitty Prodonovich.
Camera IconRegional Chamber of Commerce CEO Kitty Prodonovich. Credit: Olivia Ford

“People are either forced to leave a regional community because they can’t access childcare or one of them can’t work, or they choose not to go to that location. They might get offered an amazing job and go, ‘This is the job for me where I want to live,’ and they can’t because there’s no childcare.”

That had a flow-on effect on the broader health of regional towns because if families with young children did not stay, they wouldn’t go on to primary school so the schools get fewer resources as well because of low class sizes.

“It is an absolute circular problem,” Ms Prodonovich said.

She pointed to some initiatives from private resources companies that were helping, like a move by Chevron to offer incentive and retention payments to childcare workers in Pilbara town Onslow, but said the government needed to step in as well.

“It’s a bit like the housing crisis – everyone has to do their bit,” she said.

Maddy Butler, campaign director of advocacy group The Parenthood which coordinated the joint statement, said the lack of childcare was “killing towns” and there had to be significant changes and investment.

“The Federal Government has committed to a universal early education system. That means every child – regardless of location – can access affordable, high-quality early learning services,” she said.

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