Last year’s budget, which was brought down post-election in October 2022, delivered a massive investment to fund the Government’s Cheaper Child Care Policy.
This budget, by contrast, has little direct spending to benefit Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC).
The May 2023 budget, delivered during a time of tighter financial controls, falls short of the fulsome changes advocated for across the sector. There has unfortunately been no movement on the activity test to ensure more children can access early childhood education. The budget is also silent on educator wages, despite the urgent need for a wage boost to stabilise the workforce and support delivery of the Government’s Cheaper Child Care initiative.
There’s also no new funding announced to address childcare deserts and expand access, bar the modest $18 million grant program announced last week.
Within this slim budget there are, however, a range of measures, that increase equity and support children and families, and a small number of initiatives that might support ECEC services to operate.
Direct investments in early childhood education and care
The budget includes the recently announced $72.4 million for professional learning.
This is welcome funding that will subsidise services to backfill for educators undertaking training, and fund allowances for out-of-hours training.
Funding is also allocated for staff to undertake a paid practicum. We know the cost of undertaking practicum and foregoing wages can be prohibitive – this initiative is aimed at easing the cost burden for 6000 students.
Another 2000 workers can undertake a practicum in a different service including funding for a living allowance which is crucial to enable students to undertake experiences in rural and remote locations.
Streamlining the process for Additional Child Care Subsidy (child wellbeing) applications is also welcomed while savings measures, such as payment integrity activities (including fraud prevention activities to curb things like false child care subsidy claims), are aimed at delivering net savings of $139.4 million over four years from 2023–24.
Increasing equity and supporting families
Other budget announcements will also have a positive impact on families. The extension of the Single Parenting Payment (single) will support 57,000 single parents and carers to remain on increased payments until their youngest child turns fourteen.
A $40 per fortnight increase on government benefits, including Youth Allowance and Job Seeker, will support families, including students in ECEC courses, and ease poverty in jobless families. The 15 per cent increase in rent assistance is welcome, albeit coming in the face of major rent increases. The cost of housing is a key barrier to finding ECEC staff in some regions, and this modest increase is helpful but likely insufficient.
The $326.7m investment in a raft of women’s safety initiatives, under the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–32, including place-based, early intervention and recovery services will support highly vulnerable children and families. ‘Circuit breaker’ safety initiatives like these could potentially be delivered as part of wrap around services at ECEC services along with other supports such as counselling and speech therapy if future funding is provided.
A range of health prevention and early intervention initiatives was also included, including
supporting children at risk of deafness, funding for foetal alcohol spectrum disorder prevention, diagnosis and support activities, early intervention for infants with early signs of autism, and activities to address declines in childhood immunisation rates.
The trebling of bulk billing incentives should make accessing a doctor cheaper for families.
Supporting workforce growth
Several initiatives in the Budget are aimed at supporting workforce growth. These include foundation skills training and mentoring for apprentices and trainees and supporting community-based and culturally safe pathways to training. These initiatives may support more culturally diverse students to undertake studies in early childhood education and care.
There is also improved skills recognition to provide fast-tracked skills assessments, and a mechanism for mutual recognition of qualifications between India and Australia which could help to expand the pipeline of ECEC workers.
The government has indicated it is again recommending the Fair Work Commission ensure real wages are maintained. The recently announced $11.3 billion in aged care funding for wage growth also features in this budget, giving hope that early childhood education could be next. ELAA, alongside other peaks, have been actively advocating for increased ECEC wages.
Other initiatives worth a look
The budget includes a range of other initiatives that may reduce the cost of operating an ECEC service. There is a $1.5b energy bill relief fund that both supports low-income households and small business retail customers. There is also an additional deduction allowed under the Small Business Energy Incentive.
And an interesting initiative, with the Government partnering with leading philanthropic
organisations through an investment dialogue for Australia’s children to enable better-coordinated investments and data sharing and enable co-investment in place-based initiatives that support early childhood education and development.
This will continue to help build the evidence base about what works, particularly to engage, educate and empower vulnerable children and communities.
The budget is low in direct investment in early childhood education and care. However, the range of equity initiatives in this cost-of-living-focused Budget should help children and families.
Whilst acknowledging the cost pressures on the government, there remains a need to invest in the infrastructure needed to deliver on the promise of supporting parents to access to affordable early childhood education – both physical infrastructure and our more important asset, our workforce. This budget focused on a range of early intervention measures – a further measure would be to expand access to early childhood education to all children, noting what a game changer it can be.
Megan O’Connell, Acting CEO at Early Learning Association Australia (ELAA)