13 February 2023

Canberra childcare the most expensive, but educators say there's more to the story

| James Coleman
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Canberra childcare

Not all numbers add up. Photo: File.

A new Federal report appears to deliver damning data on the state of the ACT’s childcare services, but according to those in the field, all is not as it seems.

The Productivity Commission’s latest Report on Government Services reveals that Canberra has the country’s most expensive childcare services.

The median weekly cost of 50 hours of centre-based child care jumped to $643 in 2022, $78 more than the national median and $20 more than parents paid in 2021.

Victoria was next at $583. Tasmania was the cheapest at $521.

These figures are based on the cost to parents before the government childcare subsidy and the PC says they may not reflect the fee quoted for individual services.

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It’s not a new phenomenon for Canberra parents. Ten years ago, the ACT sat at $509 while the national median was $419.

Woden Community Service (WCS) Director of Children, Youth and Family Vivienne Gould has more than 30 years of experience in early childhood education and says the data needs context.

“The report takes data from all the early learning centres in a state, including those in regional and remote areas and lumps them all together to form the median figure,” she says.

“Some of those services might only charge $40 per day.”

Lollipop Woden

The Woden Community Service Lollipop Early Learning Centre in Phillip. Photo: Woden Community Service.

Childcare services and early learning centres in remote areas often have lower operating costs and fall under additional government subsidies, pushing the overall figure downwards. But as a city surrounded by suburbia, there’s no such situation in the ACT.

“If you only looked at Sydney, you’d probably find they were paying more than we are,” Ms Gould says.

According to the latest report from the ACT Council of Social Services (ACTCOSS), the ACT also has the highest average weekly earnings in Australia, many of them double-income families, resulting in what’s commonly called the ‘Canberra tax’.

At the same time, the cost of living continues to rise across almost all areas, from housing to food, transport to energy costs.

“Canberra is still quite expensive as a place to live,” she says.

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“We know rates and rents are horrendous here and there are flow-on implications for all of that. For early learning centres, especially if they’re privately owned, they have increasingly higher operating costs.”

The average base pay for an early childhood teacher in the ACT is $34.31 per hour, 6 per cent above the national average.

The Productivity Commission’s report also highlighted that parents in the ACT have the least access to childcare services during non-standard hours. Only 4.6 per cent of services are open before 7 am and only 2.4 per cent are available after 6:30 pm.

In Queensland, three-quarters of services are open before 7 am; in Western Australia and South Australia, half the services are open early.

Ms Gould says this also needs to be considered in light of Canberra’s unique place as a city that can be crossed by car in little more than half an hour.

“Childcare centres in Sydney and Melbourne have to factor in far longer commute times than we have. Staying open longer is a decision driven by demand for business, so it’s clear there just isn’t as high a demand for it in the ACT as some might think.”

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In addition, the report found that only 59.3 per cent of early childhood education and care staff in the ACT have a relevant formal qualification, compared to 76 per cent nationally.

Ms Gould says there are national regulations on the number of qualified staff a centre must have rostered at any given time but that the ACT is “really feeling the pinch of the workforce crisis”.

“We have people who would have ordinarily moved into the ACT to complete their qualification at university, but it’s taking longer because they’re doing it flexibly. But everybody who works in this space has to get it at some point.”

At the same time, the ACT is said to be down on childcare services that meet or exceed the national quality standards, at 77.8 per cent of services compared to the national average of 87.5 per cent.

Ms Gould says this could be attributed to an “explosion of new childcare centres in the ACT that have yet to be assessed”.

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franky22 is dead right. There is this push to “professionalise” the childcare sector, forgetting that children and parents just need childcare not impossible and irrelevant education standards.

Carers spend a lot of time off the floor doing paperwork that is of no benefit whatsoever, instead of actually looking after the kids. The education standards for certificates and diplomas have been written by academics and bear no relationship whatsoever to the day to day work in childcare.

As franky22 says, they just need to keep the kids fed, clean and safe.

And theres part of the problem. Pre school kids need child minders not educators. My 3 boys just needed to be safe, fed & have their nappies changed

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