Spotlight on childcare crisis

Gumnuts Early Learning Centre education director Brendon Ronan is working hard to reduce waiting list times for parents. Photo: Zoe Askew

Zoe Askew

Under pressure, early learning centres across the Wellington Shire have closed their doors and locked them as Gippsland’s early childhood education and care sector faces an unprecedented increase in demand for childcare while simultaneously dealing with a national shortage of teachers and educators.

In June 2021, the Skills Priority List (SPL) from the National Skills Commission (NSC) placed the childcare occupation in the top seven per cent of all professions in short supply and high future demand.

The National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy reports that the Australian early childhood education and care (ECEC) workforce must see a workforce increase of more than 19 per cent over the next five years to meet early childhood education and care demand.

However, early childhood education and care qualification enrolments are at a five-year low.

According to the Australian Industry and Skills Committee, there were just over 30,000 ECEC qualifications completed in 2020, a decrease of more than 10 per cent since 2016.

The Australian ECEC sector has been grappling with staffing shortages for years.

In a 2021 United Workers Union report, which surveyed almost 4000 early childhood teachers and educators, 70 per cent would not recommend employment within the ECEC industry as the workload is excessive, the pay is low, and they feel undervalued.

The average retention rate is dire, with an excessive number of ECEC professionals leaving the sector due to inadequate and unsustainable workplace conditions.

The National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy reported in 2020 that the average tenure for ECEC employment is less than four years.

Gippsland is no exception to the shortage of ECEC professionals.

The Department of Education’s 2020 Victorian Teacher Supply and Demand Report revealed that Gippsland has the second-lowest proportion of early childhood teachers in the state, with a total of just 350.

The report further indicated a total of 13 waivers granted across Gippsland exempting early childhood care providers from EC teacher requirements, the highest number in the state.

The Department of Education grants waivers to providers as a last resort due to recruitment challenges.

COVID has further added to the issues deeply rooted throughout Australia’s stressed Early Childhood Education and Care industry, resulting in limited availability in childcare centres and further staffing shortages causing mayhem for many families across the Wellington Shire.

For Briagolong mother of three, Lucille Florisson, the inability to obtain her 10-month-old son a position in childcare has resulted in unemployment.

As Ms Florisson reached the end of her maternity leave, she began to make arrangements for her son; however, despite contacting numerous centres in Sale, Maffra and Briagolong, the answer was the same – ‘We are full.’

“A two-year wait, they said, or I could go onto a waitlist,” Ms Florisson explained.

“They all replied with the same honest thing; It’s unlikely, but waitlisting does give you a chance to get in sooner, just no idea of how long.”

As the end of her maternity leave approached, Ms Florrison’s workplace could not wait for her to secure childcare, leading her to a crossroads; find alternative childcare or resign.

“I contemplated asking my mum to care for my son, but she too has my father to care for, and I don’t want to put more stress on them,” Ms Florisson said.

“I had a good, stable and flexible job that I loved for almost three years. I lost it because of this issue.”

Sale mother of one, Jacinta Jewell, began applying for childcare for her son in April 2021 and, after nine months on the waiting list, has only just secured a position.

“We applied to five childcare centres in Sale and one in Maffra,” Ms Jewell exclaimed.

“The centres were honest about availability, and while we were on the waiting list, I was relying on my parents to look after my son.

“We definitely need another two childcare centres around Maffra and Sale,” Ms Jewell added, sharing concerns that limited childcare positions will prevent parents from returning to work.”

Following the easing of restrictions, workers are returning to the office; however, despite common belief, this is not the only cause for the sharp increase in demand for childcare across Gippsland and the Wellington Shire.

Between June 2020 and June 2021, Gippsland Health Care reported a 21 per cent increase in births, with the highest surges in March and May 2021, nine months after Victoria’s second lockdown began in June 2020.

The Gippsland ECEC industry is now experiencing unprecedented growth in the number of babies needing care as parents of ‘COVID babies’ conclude maternity/paternity leave and return to work.

Unattainable childcare is proving to be a monumental burden for Sale midwife and mother of two, April Spiessl.

Ms Spiessl’s children have attended East Sale Childcare multiple days a week for the last four years.

At East Sale Childcare, children of RAAF personnel are priority placements, and this year, there has been an escalation in RAAF families with young children posting to Sale.

As a result, Ms Spiessl’s two-year-old daughter has been limited to one day a week.

“There have been quite a few families there that have been completely kicked out,” Ms Spiessl said.

“After speaking with a few of them, they are currently looking for a nanny to share because all the other centres are full.

“Makes having two working parents difficult when there are not enough adequate spots in the area.

“As a midwife, I work shift work, and so does my husband, so having daycare available is essential.”

“I have had to push all my shifts to mostly weekends to work around my husbands’ shifts and the one day of daycare we have left.

“This means that we barely get any time as a family to do anything together, and I’m having to rely on family to help out.”

Multiple hospitals across Victoria issued a Code Brown alert last week as the health care system strains under pressure from skyrocketing number of Omicron COVID cases.

With limited access to childcare, Ms Spiessl can only work five shifts a fortnight, and with hundreds of Gippsland health care workers burning the candle at both ends, the midwife and mother of two feels powerless.

“If there were adequate childcare centres, how many more nurses and midwives would be able to pick up extra shifts to help cope with the current shortages in the healthcare system and increased demand,” Ms Spiessl said.

Gumnuts Early Learning Centre is a non-profit organisation founded in 1998, making it one of Sale’s oldest standing childcare centres.

Current Education Director Brandon Ronan has spent more than 16 years educating and caring for children at Gumnuts.

“The demand for our service has grown enormously over the past four years. Every year the demand has got higher for the community wanting to engage our services for the care and education of our children,” Mr Ronan said.

“It has been an ongoing growth with our waiting list, but last year (2021), it grew at an exceptionally fast rate, with 20 sometimes 30 places a month being added to the list.”

At Gumnuts Early Learning Centre, they strive to meet their communities needs and cater to as many families as possible.

Regularly changing classroom models based on the age demographic of children requiring care and education allows the centre to fill the 96 children per day capacity.

“We understand the communities need for care and education and that many need it now, but unfortunately, due to availability, our hands are tied,” Mr Ronan said.

“We are fully booked with a waitlist big enough to open an entirely new centre and then some. There are 358 children requiring care each week as of December 2021.”

“We all want to provide a place for all children, and we are doing all we can to accommodate our community, but it relies on capacity and staffing.

“It really is a stressful time for everyone.”

Gumnuts Early Learning Centre purchased the residential lot adjacent to the centre in late 2020.

After owning the site for just over 12 months, Mr Ronan was excited to reveal that the Wellington Shire Council has recently awarded Gumnuts a grant to allow the centre to expand and construct more classrooms, which will provide care and education to an additional 66 children.

“With the extension of the centre, we would be looking at expanding our workforce with another two or three educators,” Mr Ronan said.

“The development provides an opportunity for the economy to grow again, not just the Gumnut’s business economy, but it will put money back into other local businesses, and as a non-profit, community centre, that’s what we are all about – giving back.”

As early childhood teachers, educators, families and children across Gippsland grapple with the effects of depleted early childhood education and care staffing levels and reduced capabilities, the state government has released a targeted initiative to attract more teachers to regional and rural classrooms.

In late 2021, the state government invested an initial $82.8 million into education, including a $45.2 million funding boost to improve teacher deficiencies in rural and regional Victorian schools and early learning centres.

A step in the right direction for the future of education throughout the region; however, families in desperate need of immediate early childhood education and care across Gippsland remain at a loss, with hundreds of parents potentially sacrificing their professions due to childcare unavailability.