When a child turns five in Australia, give or take a few months depending on the state, there is a guaranteed place for them at school. Parents might choose to send them to a private or a religious primary school but should they choose to use the public education system there is a place for every five year old at school.
Imagine if this applied to younger children? Imagine if there was a publicly-funded childcare position for every two year old? Sweden operates with such a system and the outcomes are compelling. Yes, it’s expensive, childcare costs the country an estimated 2% of GDP, but the investment garners a return.
According to the OECD 73% of Swedish women work which is only 3% points below male employment rates. More than 70% of mothers with children and 80% of sole mothers have jobs. Eight-five percent of 2-year olds use formal childcare and fees paid by parents cover just 11% of the cost of the childcare position. Aside from the economic benefit of listing women’s workforce participation high rates of maternal employment means child poverty is far lower than in other countries.
It’s bold but what if Australia adopted a similar policy?
We know the availability of childcare is a pressing issue for Australian families. It’s a problem that often renders affordability a moot point; if you can’t get a place it doesn’t matter what it costs.
We know that if you do get a childcare position, what it costs matters an awful lot, because increasingly childcare costs an awful lot.
We know that government spending on childcare rebates has soared in recent years but has done very little to move the dial in terms of cost or availability.
We know that Australia ranks 52ndAustralia ranks 52nd in the world for female workforce participation, far below other developed countires and is slipping backwards.
We also know that good quality childcare is far more than babysitting; high-quality play and learning programs are more likely to help children learn and develop well, both in the short and long term. It’s the beginning of their education and it’s vitally important.
We also know there are complications with childcare centres being run for profit and it’s not a service individual families can easily create for themselves.
We know that the cost – to individuals and society – of women exiting the workforce are prohibitive.
We know that our current childcare system isn’t working and it’s not difficult to figure out why.
There was a time when childcare was used by a minority; it wasn’t all that long ago that mothers working was an anomaly but it’s no longer the case. The Australian Institute of Family Studies says the proportion of employed mothers with children under 18 increased from 55% in 1991 to 65% in 2011.
The intention among modern families is for both parents to work but our childcare system is stuck back in the 60s. Childcare is still piecemeal, reflecting the now antiquated situation where only a few families required positions.
If we’re serious about building an economy that leverages the talent and productivity of women it’s time to stop tinkering around the edges. Let’s do away with subsidies and implement universal childcare access from age 2.