Childcare survey reveals inequities

Available, affordable, high-quality care is still out of reach for many families.
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 

01 .Introduction

Baby playing

In brief

  • Long waiting lists and lack of choice over which days, the number of days and the type of childcare available were the major problems our survey respondents found when looking for childcare.
  • Once they'd got into childcare, high costs and staffing issues(high staff turnover, too many children looked after at once) were problems many parents had to deal with.

It's hard to see how the choice, availability and quality of childcare can improve without an injection of funds - and with parents already struggling with costs, many think the government should be responsible for this.

Childcare - the state of play

We wanted to find out Australians' experiences of the childcare system. So in June this year CHOICE sent out an Australiawide survey to people who have children six years or younger and who have used or looked for childcare.

Respondents told us what problems they’d had when looking for childcare, and those who’d used childcare in the last two years also reported on the difficulties they’d experienced within the childcare system.

Some respondents said they’d had little trouble finding affordable, quality childcare in a community-based/not-for-profit centre, commercial long-day care centre or through family daycare. Others said they’d struggled to find care but were happy with it once they found it.

But many said looking for childcare was a nightmare of long waiting lists and juggling schedules to find a place. Disturbingly, some parents said they’d felt compelled to take whatever they could get. And some said the cost of childcare cancelled out the economic value of returning to work altogether.

Problems our survey respondents had once they got a place for their child or children included:

  • High cost
  • High staff turnover
  • Too few staff, with too many children being looked after at once
  • Having to fundraise for the centre
  • Parking
  • Unsuitable opening and closing times
  • Unsuitability of staff
  • Old or inadequate premises

These problems differed depending on the type of care they’d chosen. 

CHOICE childcare survey

Baby reading book

  • 1239 people around Australia responded to our email survey, which we sent out to readers of our ‘baby’ newsletter.
  • While most of the respondents were CHOICE or CHOICE Online subscribers, 38% weren’t.
  • All our respondents had looked for or used childcare for children aged from birth to six years old.
  • Our initial research indicated that the most commonly used types of paid childcare for this age group were long-day care (community-based/not-for-profit or commercial centres) and family daycare (where a carer, supported by a co-ordination and resource unit usually provided by a local council or community group, cares for children in the carer’s own home).
  • When our survey asked about commercial childcare it didn’t differentiate between small for-profit businesses and corporate, publicly listed ones.
  • 88% of those who completed the survey were women, and 74% of respondents were aged 30–39.

We received responses from people living in all states and territories of Australia.

Our verdict

It’s a hard decision for most parents to put their very young children into childcare. Many have to, in order to go back to work for financial reasons, and others choose to in order to stay in a career and help secure their future.

They shouldn’t then find, on top of this, that their choice of childcare is limited and its availability uncertain, the quality is questionable and the cost almost (or sometimes completely) prohibitive.

  • While commercially run centres can mushroom as long as private investment is available to fund them, the choice of childcare won’t increase unless the government puts greater direct investment into capital costs for more community-based/not-forprofit centres.
  • Quality of care won’t improve until childcare workers are paid better, with incentives to stay in the industry and reduce its high staff turnover, with all the problems it brings.
  • With many parents already struggling with the high cost of childcare, simply charging more for it to fund these changes won’t work. CHOICE’s survey respondents are in no doubt that it’s a government responsibility to put more funding into childcare to help fix the problems identified in the survey. Few families these days have the option of not using childcare, so guaranteeing its quality and availability is simply an investment in the future of the country.

 

 
 

Sign up to our free
e-Newsletter

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

 

 Table 1: Problems with different types of childcare

  Percentage who experienced the problem
Problem Commercial (467 respondents) Community / not-for-profit (289) Family daycare (130)
High cost 51 17 12
High staff turnover 26 18 2
Too many children being looked after at once 22 12 12
Not enough staff 18 11 5
Fundraising for the centre (A) 13 26 4
Parking when dropping off or picking up children 13 22 5
Unsuitability of staff (not qualified or inexperienced) 13 7 9
Opening / closing times 11 16 15
Old or inadequate premises 9 12 5
Old or inadequate equipment 8 8 9
Difficult access for prams / strollers 7 6 5
Unhealthy or inadequate food 6 4 2
Security of premises (B) 5 3 7
 
Table notes

(A) For example, having to sell chocolates to raise money for new equipment.
(B) For example, stranger access; children can get out unobserved; no childproof gates.

Table 2: Percentage of survey respondents who experienced problems finding childcare*

 

Problem Overall average (%)** ACT (48 respondents) NSW (427) Queensland (216) SA (75) Victoria (298) WA (134) Capital cities (960) Regional areas (275)
Long waiting lists 64 79 66 73 56 65 49 68 51
Lack of choice of which days 44 48 45 47 48 39 45 45 39
Lack of choice of number of days 38 42 43 38 27 35 35 40 32
Lack of choice of type of childcare 28 21 27 34 23 29 28 28 28
Lack of choice of hours 18 10 21 17 16 17 22 19 17
Difficulty getting childcare outside normal working hours 14 4 18 10 5 13 18 14 15
People behind you on the waiting list getting places before you 12 10 11 16 7 13 8 12 9
 
Table notes

* Results for the Northern Territory (12 respondents) and Tasmania (25) aren’t reported on a state basis because the number of respondents from each wasn’t large enough to give an accurate representation.
** Based on 1239 respondents, including the NT and Tasmania.

Table 3: Reasons for choosing the type of childcare (%)

Reason Commercial (467 respondents) Community / not-for-profit (289) Family daycare (130)
Convenient location 73 71 51
Good premises 60 53 40
Quality of staff 52 72 55
The only one available 45 28 29
Was recommended to me 37 44 44
Convenient times to drop off and pick up 32 26 33
Good parking 17 11 10
Other 10 13 26
Cost 9 24 49
 

Respondents' comments:

Child playing with blocks

  • “I live in a small town (population 8000) and we’re required to line up outside the daycare centre as early as possible in the morning (5am onwards) on the day that they take applications for the next six-month period.”
    - Sara, Queensland.
  • “All the centres we saw, the first thing out of their mouths [was] no places for at least a year and a half and that was seven months before the baby was born. Sometimes you felt you had to settle for inferior centres, just to get a place until something better appears.”
    - Jennifer, NSW.
  • “I found plenty of childcare centres in my area, but waiting lists were very long and most of them weren’t of high quality anyway.”
    - Leanne, Queensland.

Survey findings

While recent government figures indicate an oversupply of childcare in some areas, our survey revealed that other areas face shortages.

  • The biggest obstacle faced by our respondents when looking for childcare was long waiting lists (see Table 2) — 64% of people who completed the survey reported them. On a state basis, even in bestcase WA and SA around 50% of survey respondents mentioned long waiting lists.
  • Waiting lists are also generally more of a difficulty in cities than regional areas.

Parents spoke of waiting lists that were sometimes as long as two or three years. One respondent was shocked to be told that they should have put their name down at a childcare centre before their child was born, but many parents said they’d done just that and still had trouble getting a place.

And there were even cases of parents who’d had to refuse work because of lack of available care.

Some parents also thought waiting lists weren’t very systematic:

  • 12% of parents who answered our survey said people who’d apparently been behind them on the waiting lists had got places before they had. This may be because some centres give siblings priority, or because government policy gives priority for at-risk children, but it added to the frustration of those still waiting for a place.
  • 44% of those surveyed said they’d been unable to get the days they wanted, while 38% had problems getting the number of days they needed.
    Getting childcare outside normal working hours proved a problem for 14% of our respondents.

The Minister's view

The Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCSIA), Mal Brough, says waiting lists aren’t a reliable measure of demand "… as they are often out of date and people routinely join multiple lists”.

This seems a feeble reason for dismissing the significance of widespread long waiting lists: surely parents wouldn’t put their names on multiple lists if they were confident they’d get into the centre they’d prefer.

The fact that lists are out of date and duplicated also adds stress to parents trying to return to work or study.

As one respondent said: “There is so much duplication … you don’t really know what realistic chance you have of getting in by the date that you require it for.”

Respondents' comments

  • “I had to accept a centre that I’m not comfortable with as that was the only one available.”
    - Donna, NSW.
  • “It’s not about us choosing the best place for our child, more we have to take what we can get, if anything!”
    - Cherry, NSW.
  • “Everything is owned by ABC.”
    - Greg, SA.
  • “I’ve always found … a [daycare centre] spot immediately. I’ve used three separate daycares and have always gone back to ABC.”
    - Phoebe, Queensland.

What they're using

  • A commercial childcare centre was the most common type used by our respondents: 57% said they’d used one.
  • 35% said they’d used community-based/not-for-profit centres.
  • 16% family daycare (some had used more than one type).
  • Other options our respondents had used included family and friends (quite a large 28%, which may in itself say something about the availability and cost of other childcare), a live-in or live-out nanny or undefined ‘other’ type.

Why they're using it

Users of all three major kinds of publicly available childcare said recommendations from others influenced their choices, and convenient location was not surprisingly a significant factor in the decision too.

Users of family daycare (where children are cared for in a private home, usually under a system run by the local council or other community group) were significantly more likely to have chosen this form of childcare because of cost (49%).

73% of those who’d used commercial childcare said they’d chosen it for its convenient location (it was the highest-rating reason for this type).

Another high-rating reason for using commercial childcare was good premises (60%).

However, significantly more commercial childcare users (45%) said they’d chosen this type of care because it was the only one available, compared to 28% of community-based/not-for-profit childcare users and 29% of family daycare users.

This suggests some parents may be choosing a commercial childcare centre because there’s no other option available, rather than out of choice.

Survey respondents showed more confidence in the quality of staff in community-based/not-for- profit childcare and family daycare than for commercial daycare: 72% of the former and 55% of the latter nominated it as a reason for choosing this type of care — it was the reason most often nominated for choosing these two types.

52% of commercial centre users named quality of staff as a reason for choosing them (a significant difference in this survey), in this case well behind convenient location and good premises.

Respondents’ comments

  • “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 regulations

baby with mum

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.

Respondents' comments

Child painting

  • "Childcare costs too much and the money I make from working barely covers the cost.”
    - Christine, WA.
  • “Still in shock that it will cost more for childcare than it will to put my children through private school.”
    - Tim, Victoria.
  • “I just want to point out that $50–$60 per day (10 hours) to look after a child is very cheap. I don’t believe that childcare is too expensive. I would happily pay more to know that my child is well looked after while I go to work.”
    - Rebecca, WA.
  • “When the government offers a rebate it seems all the daycare centres then put the price up — so in effect the rebate is of no use!”
    - Leah, NSW.

Type of childcare and cost

High cost was among the top problems listed by survey respondents for all kinds of publicly available childcare — it was the biggest problem by a long chalk for users of commercial centres, and equal second even for users of usually cheaper family daycare (see Table 1).

Only 17% of parents using community-based/notfor- profit childcare listed cost as a problem, though it was still fourth on their list. However, the corollary to this was 26% of this group saying they have to fundraise for the centre.

Government assistance

To assist families with the cost of childcare, the Federal Government introduced the means-tested Child Care Benefit (CCB) in 2000. This benefit initially made childcare more affordable. However, research indicates that rises in childcare fees in recent years have been greater than the CCB subsidy, which has made childcare less affordable again for many families.

On top of the CCB, the Federal Government introduced the Child Care Tax Rebate (CCTR) in 2004, whereby families claiming the CCB can also claim 30% of what they pay for childcare (less their CCB) against their income tax.

The maximum rebate is $4000 per child, which parents couldn’t initially claim until the 2005/06 financial year. The CCTR can only reduce the amount of tax a person owes to zero — so you won’t receive any excess as a refund once your tax is reduced to nil.

As no-one has been able to claim their rebate until recently, it’s too early to know what effect the rebate will have on family finances. However, some experts doubt the extent of its value to lower and middleincome families. It’s of most benefit to families on high incomes who are receiving a lower CCD and are taxed at a higher rate.

Critics also point out that many parents can’t afford to wait until the following financial year to receive their rebate.

Respondents' comments

  • "The government should increase funding to allow centres to increase wages, thereby ensuring quality carers at all centres.”
    - Darren, Victoria.
  • “I think people should pay for their own childcare instead of expecting taxpayers to subsidise their lifestyle choices.”
    - Anne, NSW.
  • “Assistance should be given to people who choose to stay home with their children.”
    - Lisa, Queensland.

In favour of more funding

Most of our respondents who’d used childcare in the past two years thought government should increase funding of childcare, by investing more for the provision of care as well as offering assistance to parents to help reduce its cost (see Figures 1 and 2, below).

With the provision of childcare, respondents thought government should supply capital funding for community-based/not-for-profit centres to increase the choice available to parents.

Experts also suggest government should provide land at cheaper rates for such centres to be built. Many respondents weren’t happy that childcare had become such a money-maker for big business, especially given carers are so poorly paid. Some thought increased government funding should go towards improving workers’ wages.

Expert workshop recommendations

A recent expert workshop on childcare policy supports wage increases for carers to help retain staff and pay them appropriately for the work they do. It also advised that government become involved in workforce planning to deal with childcare staff shortages, and that staff-to-child ratios be increased (which would also require more money).

Our survey respondents also wanted more help from the government to cover their out-of-pocket costs for childcare. There were a few comments, however (such as the one quoted above), from parents who’d prefer government to help them afford to stay at home with their child for at least the first 18 months. Some said they’d prefer paid parental leave over the current Maternity Payment they receive when their child is born.

Figure 1. Percentage of respondents who have used childcare in the past two years who agree with the statement: "The government should put more funding into childcare to reduce the cost to parents."

Strongly agree
60  
Agree
24  

Figure 2. Percentage of respondents who have used childcare in the past two years who agree with the statement: " The government should put more funding into childcare to make more places available."

Strongly agree
66  
Agree
26  

Childcare checklist

Use our checklist to help find the best childcare option for your children.

  • Visit prospective childcare services more than once, and spend time observing how the staff interact with the children and how the centre (or home if it’s family daycare) is run.
    • Do the children seem happy and engaged in activities, or do they look bored?
    • Does the centre or home look like a happy place to be?
    • Are you and your child welcome?
    • Are staff engaged with the children or sitting around chatting to each other?
    • Do they appear to know the children well?
  • Ask questions about how your child will be taken care of and how their needs will be met. You should be welcome to drop in and see your child any time. Experts recommend you visit unannounced from time to time.
  • Ask about staff turnover, what the child-to-staff ratio is for your child’s age group, and how many children are in each room or group. Ask about age and qualifications in each room. Are any of the staff’s qualifications related to early childhood?
  • If the centre provides food, ask to see the menu.
    • How often is it changed?
    • Can it cater for special dietary requests?
    • Are quantities adequate, and are enough fresh fruit and vegetables served?
    • Are meal and snack times enjoyable?
  • Check that the equipment and play spaces are safe.
  • Both long-day care centres and family daycarers are assessed by the National Childcare Accreditation Council. You can find out how a centre or carer went in their assessment by asking the centre (or the coordination unit, if you’re using family daycare) to show you their Quality Profile Certificate. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their results.
  • Our survey respondents recommended putting your child’s name down at a centre as early as possible — before they’re born — and regularly checking with the centre to see if a vacancy has come up.
  • Get the National Childcare Accreditation Council's brochure called "Choosing quality childcare" (contact details listed below).

Useful contacts

  • Childcare Access Hotline:
    For information on childcare vacancies, childcare services in your area, quality issues, types of childcare and government assistance with childcare cost.
    Phone: Freecall 1800 670 305 (Monday to Friday, 8am to 9pm EST)
  • National Childcare Accreditation Council (NCAC):
    Website: www.ncac.gov.au
    Phone 1300 136 554 (local call cost) Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 5pm EST)
  • Family Day Care Australia:
    Website: www.familydaycareaustralia.com.au
    Phone: Freecall 1800 621 218
  • National Association of Community Based Children’s Services (NACBCS):
    Website: www.nacbcs.org.au
    Phone: (03) 9486 3455.
  • Childcare Associations Australia:
    Website: www.childcareaust.org.au
    ; see the website for various telephone contacts in each state.
  • State/territory government contacts:
    If you think a childcare centre is in breach of regulatory requirements (for example, it’s short-staffed, or the building is unsafe), you can complain to the state or territory body that licenses the centre.
    Website: For a list of contacts for state and territory licensing authorities, go to http://www.ncac.gov.au/links/state_licensing_index.asp.

Couldn't find a place

Mother and baby

Sharon from Marrickville in Sydney’s inner west says she was looking at childcare centres "… before I booked the obstetrician … in this area you have to get your name down early.” She was warned by the council, though, that she probably wouldn’t get a place in long-day care because of high demand.

She looked at a number of centres, choosing them by word of mouth. "I always asked about staff turnover, as I think continuity of care is what counts, not shiny pretty toys."

After her daughter Olivia was born, Sharon also put her name down for family daycare. She was offered three places to choose from — one was already gone by the time she called and the other two were unsuitable for her daughter.

Sharon’s employer was willing to be flexible, and she arranged some informal care with her mother-in-law and a friend. In the end, though, she wasn’t able to guarantee that she would always be available to work enough days in the office every week, even part-time, and so had to resign.

Although she can freelance from home, Sharon admits her income is erratic. "It would’ve been tough financially and professionally if I hadn’t been able to find informal care and work freelance.”

Sharon thinks governments and local councils are short-sighted and inconsistent: "Given that many professional couples in their 30s had bought homes around the inner west of Sydney, the need for childcare in the area should’ve been obvious. And the Federal Government wants people to have children, but they’re not supporting them when they do."

Very happy with the quality of care

Glen from Dubbo, NSW, has used a council-run childcare centre for his two-year-old daughter Sophie since she was seven months old.

Glen and his wife Merryn originally used family daycare. Although they liked her being in a home environment, they eventually decided to change Sophie to a long-day care centre run by the council, as they thought it would improve her development.

“Sophie loves going to daycare," says Glen. "The carers are very good — we’re happy with them all.” He’s also pleased that Sophie’s carers can tell him what she’s been up to all day "… off the top of their heads, so they take notice — they take part in her development."

Merryn and Glen put Sophie's name on the centre’s waiting list while she was still in family daycare. When they decided to put her into the centre, it wasn't too difficult. The main problem was getting the days they wanted — Merryn had to change her days at work to suit the centre.

"We weren’t too concerned about cost," said Glen. “We wanted quality care. We checked it out first — how rooms were set out, activities … the amount of kids … we’d also heard good things about the centre."

Your say - Choice voice

Make a Comment

Members – Sign in on the top right to contribute to comments