- “I’ve been very happy with the community-based centre I now use … parents have a say, staff are very dedicated and amazingly stay (high [staff] turnover is a big problem in many centres).”
- Frances, NSW.
- “When I looked at childcare facilities I was alarmed at the small number of staff catering for a big number of children. So many babies and toddlers were wandering around aimlessly looking for attention from their carers, who were too busy to notice.”
- Megan, Victoria.
What’s best for kids
- Experts say children learn best and feel most secure when they’re able to develop relationships with their carers.
- Good staff-to-child ratios are essential in order for relationships between children and their carers to be formed.
- The presence of qualified staff (including early childhood teachers) is also important to help children’s cognitive and social development.
Staff-to-child ratios are regulated by state governments. Some experts we spoke to voiced concerns that the current legal ratios aren’t adequate.
This is especially a concern for under-twos, where the legal ratio is one carer to five babies or toddlers, except in Queensland and Tasmania, where it’s one to four.
Many of our respondents seemed to share these concerns, reporting problems with too many children being looked after at once and high staff turnover.
These problems were reported significantly more often by users of commercial daycare than community-based/not-for-profit care and family daycare (see Table 1), although high staff turnover was also seen as something of a problem in community-based/not-for-profit centres.
Childcare quality study
A recent survey (conducted by Dr Emma Rush from the Australia Institute) of 578 childcare staff from childcare centres around Australia suggests there’s a link between quality care and the care provider.
This study divided childcare into three types of provider:
- Community-based (including all not-for-profit centres)
- Independent private (for-profit small businesses)
- Corporate chains (for-profit publicly listed corporations)
It looked at factors indicating quality, including:
- Time staff had to develop relationships with children
- Whether the centre’s program met children’s individual needs and interests
- Equipment quality
- Quality and quantity of food
- Staff turnover
- Staff-to-child ratios.
The results of this study suggest that while most staff considered the quality of care in their centre to be quite high, when comparing ratings staff gave to their centre, community-based centres provided the highest-quality care, followed by independent private centres.
The survey results suggested that corporate childcare offered the lowest quality of care — particularly in terms of the ability of staff to form relationships with children.
Response from one large corporate childcare provider
We talked to one large corporate provider of childcare, ABC Learning, which owns about 20% of the commercial childcare market. We asked it to respond to criticism that corporate centres provide a lower quality of care because they’re driven by profits.
Its spokesperson thought this argument was “illogical”, saying ABC Learning needs to maintain high occupancy in order to be a successful company and therefore needs to provide high-quality care to make sure parents continue to send their children to its centres.
Our survey results don’t completely support this argument.
While many respondents said they were happy with the care provided by commercial childcare centres, 45% of those who used one said they chose it because it was the only one available to them. In other words, they were driven by necessity rather than a perception of quality.
Moves to ensure quality
Although childcare centres have to be licensed by a state or territory government authority , the quality assurance of childcare providers is a Federal Government responsibility.
The Childcare Compliance Strategy is a recent Federal Government initiative to further improve childcare quality assurance.
It includes the introduction of unannounced spot-checks of childcare centres and family daycare, and unannounced validation visits (where validators visit the service to check it’s abiding by quality practices).
This will prevent childcare providers being able to prepare in advance for inspections. All experts we spoke to on this subject applauded this move — as one pointed out: “The quality of care should be good every day.”
Experts in the field have also suggested a number of measures to ensure quality, such as:
- Reforming existing systems
- Strengthening training and qualifications of staff
- Tightening regulations
- Lowering the child-to-staff ratio (especially for children under two)
- Improving conditions and remuneration to attract and retain staff. Childcare workers are generally acknowledged to be poorly paid.
However, the money to invest in all this has to come from somewhere. Experts point out that if carers were paid on a par for what they do, childcare would cost even more. Who should carry these costs, though, still seems unresolved.
Many experts think childcare should be provided by the community/not-for-profit sector, funded by the government. Our respondents generally supported the idea of more government funding.