Early childhood education should be free or low-cost to help Australia bounce back from the coronavirus crisis, sector advocates and Australian National University researchers say.
New analysis of 156 Australian COVID-19 policy responses conducted by the ANU Menzies Centre for Health Governance found the temporary free childcare measure reduced social and health inequalities and therefore it should be continued for disadvantaged households.
Lead author Professor Sharon Friel said improving access to early childhood education would have health benefits for children in the long term as it would allow parents, particularly women, to rejoin the workforce and boost their household income.
"Inequalities and health inequalities in Australia are getting worse. That's not because of medical services, that's partly to do with it, but it's the sort of everyday living conditions that affect our lives," Professor Friel said.
"Helping low income women into the workforce through childcare support, that's a good thing to do, not just because it will help reduce the inequality within society and really strengthen the life trajectories for children from those households, but it also just really good for the economy."
The recommendations echo Early Childhood Australia's recent federal budget submission which calls for an increase in the childcare subsidy from 85 per cent to 95 per cent for low-income families, tapering off to a 30 per cent subsidy for high-income households.
The submission endorses analysis from the Grattan Institute which said the federal government should spend an extra $5 billion a year on childcare subsidies to achieve an $11 billion per year increase in GDP by boosting workforce participation.
Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page said the organisation also wanted the activity test, which requires parents to show they are spending time in work, study, volunteering or jobseeking, to be abolished until June 30 next year.
"We've always said that the way the current childcare subsidy system is designed is back to front, because it's requiring parents to have the work already secured before they can access the childcare subsidy," Ms Page said.
Families went back to paying fees from July 13 when the Child Care Subsidy switched back on. From October 4, families who were previously meeting the activity test before the pandemic will need to restart reporting their hours of activity to Centrelink.
Ms Page said ensuring children from lower income households had access to high-quality early learning experiences was especially important after being exposed to bushfires over summer and then the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think there's a vulnerability about children at the moment that have lived through both of those sort of calamities back to back and so making sure that we give them the best early childhood experiences that we can is really important."