Childcare is a critical issue for Australian families and our society. Its outcomes are critical for children. Questions of availability, affordability and quality overwhelm many parents and particularly mothers struggling to maintain attachment to the labour market in their area of skill and expertise, or trying to return to work. Others look to childcare for development opportunities for children and respite from their care.
So high is the unmet demand for childcare in some areas that many experts and commentators talk of a childcare ‘crisis’. Steep increases in the cost of care have also contributed to the perceived ‘crisis’. But long waiting lists and hefty fees are not the only problem. Many child welfare and education experts argue that the quality of childcare services is an issue that must be addressed. This of course relates directly to the level of education, training and work conditions available for childcare workers. But who should provide childcare? Debate as to whether childcare should be provided for profit or not is a key feature of the debate and is directly linked to questions of quality and affordability. The role of government in subsidising services is another contested aspect of the childcare debate. How should governments support childcare: through tax rebates, fee subsidies, centre-based grants? What is its role in planning, setting and enforcing standards? What do multiple government roles mean for the sector and how should these be rationalised?
But for all the discussion about childcare in recent years an integrated understanding of the childcare industry, its quality and affordability is difficult to find. Social scientists across a number of disciplines – sociology, health sciences, economics, labour studies, early childhood education – have an important contribution to a more informed, evidence-based discussion of the nature of the national challenges Australian faces in this field, and their potential policy responses. Bringing an international comparative perspective to this discussion is also important.
The aim of the workshop is to develop a framework and set of key policy principles within which an equitable, evidence-based childcare policy can be developed. Informing the development of these policy principles will be the research expertise of Australian and international researchers who will:
- Analyse the contemporary childcare industry, in particular areas of ‘market failure’ – inadequate supply and cost and quality issues, both in Australia and internationally;
- Clarify the case for childcare as education and the relationship between early childhood education and children’s health, development and future prospects;
- Consider alternative funding and provision models and their implications for supply, demand, quality and inequality;
- Review the workforce issues in the industry with an examination of skills, labour supply and the current and prospective nature of labour supply and demand in the sector and its implications for childcare provision.