Australian childcare ‘in crisis’ as new figures show 11 per cent need special dispensation from federal government to operate legally

Australia’s childcare sector is emerging from the Omicron wave in “crisis”, with more than one in 10 centers needing a government waiver to operate legally because it does not have enough workers.

New figures from the Department for Education show that 11.2 per cent of child care centers across the country need special permission to open, due to staff shortages, most of them because they don’t were unable to employ a single university-educated teacher, as required by law.

The majority of early childhood educators have training leading to a diploma or certificate, but the government also requires that at least one college graduate lead staff and communicate with families.

In 2013, the number of centers with staffing waivers was only 5%. In 2019, before the pandemic, it was 7.4%.

Professor Sandi Wong of Macquarie University – a leading expert on early learning – has compared child care centers operating without a teacher to the Australian cricket team playing without a captain.

She said the sector was “in crisis”.

Sandie Wong, a professor at Macquarie University, says the childcare industry is “in crisis”.(ABC News: Aaron Hollett)

“Without these leaders, the quality of service is going to be compromised,” she said.

“And that will only impact children, their learning and development.

“[Without such educators] we just don’t see the high quality that we want and that these kids need.

“They tend to be the ones [who] notice if the children are not growing quite as they should. They lead the team to support families and work with families [who are]often going through some pretty tough times.”

The new data comes as the sector faces a wave of job losses during the pandemic as well as significant economic pressures from COVID-19 shutdowns.

It’s not yet clear how many early childhood educators have left the sector in the past two years, but according to lobby group Thrive by Five, employers were looking for more than 14,000 early childhood educators as of December 2021 .

Thrive by Five said this meant early learning operators had vacancies equivalent to 9.5% of the entire workforce.

The early learning sector received bailouts from the federal government during the COVID-19 Delta and Alpha lockdowns, including free childcare for all in winter 2020.

Under pressure from the treatment of women, the government pledged more than $3 billion more for preschool and childcare discounts in its latest budget.

Senior government officials have said that – compared to other parts of the economy – the industry has received generous aid.

However, many operators and experts have said the government should increase its annual spending by $9 billion to raise salaries and ensure operators can attract and retain good staff.

“They need us to stay open”

These staffing shortages have impacted parents as the Omicron wave of COVID-19 has seen infections soar and parents rush to seek care.

Samantha Callaghan is mum to Patrick, 4, and Rachel, 2.

Samantha Callaghan
Samantha Callaghan with her two-year-old daughter, Rachel.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

Last month, the center where she sends her children – in Haberfield in Sydney’s west – had to close after a student tested positive for COVID-19.

Ms Callaghan got the call as she prepared for a busy week.

“The center was closed for a week, completely, and some rooms were closed for an additional week. So, from that moment… [Patrick and Rachel had] been away for about four weeks, with [the] Christmas vacation,” Ms Callaghan said.

“Their behavior, the way they reacted to things, was very different.”

Maria Routsis is director and educator of the center attended by the children of Callaghan.

Two women in a daycare center
Maria Routsis says many people in the community depend on their daycare to operate.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

“It’s been tough as a department. It’s been tough as an individual. It’s been tough as a manager,” Ms Routsis said.

Ms Routsis knows firsthand how difficult it is to fill positions at the moment, with waivers common across the sector.

She said more funding was needed to pay salaries attractive enough to retain them in the industry.

She appreciated how much families in her local community depended on their service and how much they needed her to stay open.

“We have a lot of frontline workers [as clients]. We have teachers, we have nurses, we have doctors, we have a very large community of families [who] attend the service and they need our doors to remain open,” Ms Routsis said.

Centers may soon “have to close”

Advocates, including Professor Wong, warn that sudden closures may not subside after Omicron spikes.

“A lot of people are leaving the sector altogether. And that’s really troubling, given that we already have a shortage,” Professor Wong said.

Sam Page – who lobbies on behalf of operators with Early Childhood Australia – said his members were in pain and needed extra support.

An executive of the industry’s biggest operators – who requested anonymity to speak freely – told the ABC that the current situation was “horrible” and that centers are expected to “shut down” soon.

Acting Education Minister Stuart Robert declined to comment.

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