Average income parents are spending more on early childhood care and education than they would sending their child to private primary schools, despite increased government funding for the sector.
A family of two adults working full-time on an average combined income of $170,000 last year paid $5949 for one year of long day care, according to calculations in the Australian Investment in Education: Early Childhood Education and Care report released on Sunday by education think tank the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University.
This is more than the average $5782 they would have spent sending their child to an independent primary school and far outstrips the $336 annual cost of a public school.
"When parents spend that money on a private primary school they’re making a choice, but when they’re spending that money on early childhood education it’s often the only option they have in their community," researcher Dr Jen Jackson said.
For full-time working mum Lina Gyle, whose two-year-old son Eddy is in long day care, childcare costs of about $2000 per month are greater than her mortgage.
"We don’t have an extended family to look after a child. There isn’t really another option," she said. "If I was to have another child, I would want to wait until [Eddy is in] primary school. It would be prohibitive to have both in childcare. We have a fairly good income, and it’s still very expensive."
Government funding for childcare has significantly increased over the past 10 years, which is partly because more people are in the system and accessing the childcare subsidy.
But it still remains far less than per-student expenditure on primary schooling. Average government spending is greater for a child at a public primary school ($11,794) or independent school ($9833), than for a pre-school-aged child in an average income family ($6205).
This is despite the need for a higher ratio of educators to students in early childhood education. A ratio of 1:4 is required for children under two, and 1:11 for pre-schoolers.
"It’s great to see the government investing more in the childcare subsidy. But we've seen decreases in costs to families have now been swallowed up by the increases in fees," she said.
"Once we have stability of government investment, we can start talking about how much is needed to deliver the quality of learning the children need. Quality early childhood education can put kids months ahead in their learning and those benefits are greatest for children from disadvantaged families [who] the high costs hit the hardest."
She said Australia was "dragging the chain internationally" when compared with Scandinavian countries or the Canadian province of Ontario, which this year introduced free childcare for children from 2½ years old.
Estimates based on available data indicate Australian families are spending between $3.8 billion and $6.8 billion on early childhood care and education per year.