Previous government’s trial program points to the need for facts in the flexibility debate

Should children's education and centres be more flexible with their opening hours?

Less than 100 families have made use of the Labor Government’s flexible childcare trials, according to figures from the Department of Education published in Fairfax papers. The trials were announced in March 2013 by Minister Kate Ellis, apparently as a result of “a clear demand for more flexible child care options”.

The $1.3 million Flexibility Fund was open to children’s services to provide a range of different options for families, including longer opening hours and even overnight or weekend services.

The trial featured a number of Family Day Care providers working with shift-workers in the emergency services sector, as well as a handful of Long Day Care centres trialling extended opening hours.

The report comes in the middle of ongoing media speculation regarding the Government’s planned changes to the children’s education and care sector. They are currently awaiting the outcome of the Productivity Commission Inquiry into the sector before making any changes.

But the Assistant Minister Sussan Ley has repeatedly pointed to a lack of flexibility in the sector to accommodate the needs of modern families. A point hardly backed up by the dismal take-up rate of the flexible options funded by Labor’s trials.

But the political debate around flexibility of children’s services has never been about facts. It seems to have become an assumed “fact” of the sector that it is not meeting the needs of a significant amount of families, but no person, organisation or peak body has actually provided data on this.

Surveys have indicated that anecdotally there are families who are wishing for extended opening hours particularly, but the Department of Education’s analysis suggests this is not a critical issue and that families are only requiring it on an “ad-hoc basis”.

So the assumed “fact” that flexibility is a major and concerning issue needs to be challenged. The results of the trial indicate that it is actually a very minor issue compared to actual availability, and affordability for a number of families.

The issues around shift-workers (particularly those in emergency services) is not just one for the sector – it is one that needs be addressed as an Australian community.

Simply extending operating hours to meet the needs of every single person who requires it is a ridiculous solution to this issue.

There first needs to be some facts on the table on how many families this is affecting, and then a discussion about a holistic approach to addressing it.

The business community needs to be a large part of the discussion. The community sector is often expected to twist and bend itself to meet the needs of business – are there any discussions taking place about business being more flexible to the needs of young families?

The failure of the Flexibility Fund should encourage policy makers to look at these issues holistically, and not as isolated “problems” that can be “fixed” with a targeted program.

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