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Regional and rural women need a nuanced approach to free preschool

Last week’s NSW and Victorian Governments announced plans for free play-based early childhood education for 4–5-year-olds in preschool settings was welcomed by most Australian women. This reform will have an overall significant and positive impact on children, families, the early childhood sector and the broader workforce.

This access to 30 hours a week of universal free preschool is considered the gold standard of care around the world. It can support children’s well-being and development. For women in regional and rural Australia, it will have unique benefits and challenges due to access and affordability.

Current lack of availability

Many women in regional and rural Australia do not have access to preschool and other childcare. They often cannot work at all, or cannot work as much as they want to, or need to work in jobs they don’t want to because they live in ‘childcare deserts’. These are locations where more than 3 children need care, but only 1 place is available.

While 35 per cent of Australians live in one of these childcare deserts, the divide between city and country is stark. This figure rises to 45 per cent in inner regional areas and 61 per cent in outer regional areas. The gap widens to 78 per cent in very remote areas and a staggering 85 per cent in remote areas.

Unsurprisingly, these desert areas are linked to socioeconomic status, and the availability of quality childcare is much easier in more affluent areas. This intersectionality (overlapping discrimination) means that many women in regional and rural areas often don’t have access to economic security, even when jobs are available.

This inequity means many families have to use different services in order to cover their work days. Using multiple services is disruptive for children and reduces their ability to form close relationships with early childhood educators. Close relationships are essential for children to flourish and learn.

The government’s announcement indicates some services will be built on school grounds or next to schools in areas where there is a shortage of services. This will help address availability, but also improve access for families.

Not another year of school

While some services will be on school grounds, care needs to be taken that this does not result in a pushdown of school curricula. These services need to be accredited as play-based and use the Early Years Learning Framework.

Educators need to be early childhood trained with knowledge of early childhood philosophy and the value of play-based learning. Four-year-old children do not need school worksheets and pressure to ‘get ready for school’ by simply starting school a year early.

Accessibility for rural and regional women

Most women carry the mental load of households and caring for children, so having to access multiple services to cover their workdays increases this load. Having services available on school grounds could potentially reduce this stress.

Additionally, the state governments would be wise to consider increasing mobile preschool services to remote areas. These services are often only available one day a week for many communities. These services provide rural women with the opportunity to work on rural properties that are very short of labour.

Avoiding the ‘C’ words

State governments should use as many ‘A’ words as possible. These should include ‘available’, ‘accessible’ and ‘advisable’ to ensure that families know quality preschool can have many learning benefits for 4-5-year-olds.

However, they should avoid the ‘C’ word. ‘Compulsory’ is not a word that should be used when discussing 30 hours of preschool for rural and regional families because it increases their unique ‘challenges’. Families in these areas often need to travel long distances to access preschool, and this is problematic with the rising cost of fuel. It may only suit some families to access these services one day a week.

In Canada, a similar program has been seen 95 per cent of families accessing the program. Australian state governments need to trust families to make the best decision for their children and families based on their own unique circumstances. After all, parents are children’s first teachers, and they are best placed to know what their children can cope with.

Educators don’t grow on trees

The early childhood sector may benefit from increased funding and status, but how will the state governments attract and maintain all the early childhood educators needed for these programs?

Currently, the sector is experiencing a staffing crisis, with the number of job advertisements doubling since the start of the pandemic, with an estimated 6,000 vacancies. Some services have closed since they do not have access to enough casual staff.

The pressures of being a frontline worker during the pandemic, being the 13th lowest-paid workers in Australia, and working in a high-pressured environment with often-unpaid overtime have spelled disaster for the industry.

The states are also offering scholarships to try to attract workers to the field. While this is welcome, attracting and maintaining an underpaid workforce during a national skills shortage is like arriving at a major train wreck with a packet of sticking plaster and some paracetamol. Real wage reform is urgently needed.

Since 92 per cent of educators are female, this will have a flow-on effect on women’s and families’ economic well-being. Before this plan was announced, it was estimated that 39,000 more educators were needed by 2023.

So, attracting and maintaining all the educators required for this gold standard of early childhood education will need to be a better focus. The state governments hope to roll their plan out between 3.5 years (Victoria) and 7.5 years (NSW).

Investing in our future

While the details and budgets are yet to be developed, investing in quality early childhood education has lifelong benefits to support children’s well-being and development. It will be well worth the time, effort and investment as we move to a post-pandemic future and support rural and regional women.

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