Urgent COVID-19 clarity needed for early childhood sector

The Morrison Government’s $1.6 billion package providing free childcare for parents is welcome news for the early childhood education (ECE) sector but still leaves urgent questions which must be clarified.

The government’s announcement also included $453.2 million to support almost 350,000 children to attend preschool in 2021.

Australian Education Union Federal President Correna Haythorpe said that while this funding was essential to keep the doors open for many preschools during the COVID-19 pandemic, in reality it only represented an additional 12-month extension of the existing Universal Access National Partnership (UANP) program providing guaranteed access to quality early childhood education (ECE) for children in the year before school. 

“We welcome the allocated funding for universal access to preschool for 2021, however the sector still faces grave uncertainty,” Ms Haythorpe said.

“The COVID-19 crisis has seen worried parents withdrawing their children from preschool, and this will have a long term impact on the sector, which is why it is critically important that funding is secured for the long term.

“The reality is that we may not have a preschool sector left past 2021 if we do not provide long term protection and ongoing funding for the sector.” 

Ms Haythorpe said that, given the government views ECE as an essential service, the AEU was calling on the national cabinet to provide a guarantee that:

  • a nationally consistent definition of essential worker is developed to provide clarity for ECH settings
  • the health and safety needs of the early childhood workforce will be prioritised to ensure that those workers who remain on site can do so safely,
  • vulnerable workers and workers with vulnerable family members will be supported to work from home
  • maintenance of income for all employees including part time and casual
  • governments will “bridge the gap” to cover fees currently paid by parents so that ECH settings will be able to continue to operate.

The current need for social distancing poses a unique challenge in the early childhood setting, Ms Haythorpe said.

“As we move towards a COVID-19 emergency mode of operation after Easter, preschool teachers and education support staff must have guidelines about how they keep themselves safe and how they ensure social distancing with their students, as it is practically impossible to keep young children apart,” Ms Haythorpe said.

“These measures will enable staff, particularly those who are in casual employment, to have certainty around their ongoing employment.

“This will be critical if we are to ensure that the ECE sector is not decimated and incapable of being up and ready to resume normal operations post COVID-19,” Ms Haythorpe said.

Ms Haythorpe said that it was essential that children continue to be provided with high-quality early childhood education and care during the coronavirus outbreak.

“The research is clear that children who miss out on a year of preschool education will start school behind those who have accessed preschool,” Ms Haythorpe said. “These children can suffer the effects of that disadvantage throughout their lives.” 

“We have sought urgent discussions with Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan to resolve these issues on behalf of our members.”