I thank the member for Robertson for this really important motion. Education changes lives, from early childhood education and primary school all the way through to university and vocational education. But we know that people living in regional Australia have much lower educational outcomes than our city cousins. A Grattan Institute report released today found that one in three Australian students are not reading proficiently, but that increases to half of all students in regional Australia. This is deeply distressing. This is shocking information. As a regional Independent, I want to see this change. I want to see young regional Australians given the same opportunities as those young people in the cities. Across regional, rural and remote Australia, it is educators who make this happen. Early childhood educators and teachers are the key to our education system, guiding our children and young people through some of the most important years of their lives.
But our educator workforce is in trouble. We don’t have nearly enough early childhood educators and teachers in this country. Parents are forced to wait months and sometimes even years on childcare waitlists. Schools are advertising teacher roles and receiving no applications. In my electorate of Indi, principals tell me they simply cannot hire enough teachers. There are not enough graduate teachers, and those that do graduate are not coming to rural, regional and remote Australia. The teachers who complete their training and join the sector aren’t staying long enough, and these shortages risk setting the regional education gap back a whole generation.
I’m encouraged to see the government’s Commonwealth teaching scholarships will provide additional payments and student debt relief to aspiring teachers willing to work in remote areas. But it’s not clear to me whether these initiatives will benefit inner-regional areas like my electorate, where the shortages are dire. In child care, the situation is no better. A recent survey by the United Workers Union found that 90 per cent of childcare centres need more staff and that more than half are down three or more staff. More than a third of Australians live in a childcare desert, where there are simply more children than available childcare places or where there are simply no places at all. Across Australia, and nowhere more so than regional Australia, our childcare system is struggling. I’ve visited childcare centres right across my electorate, and they all tell me the same story: they struggle to recruit, train and retain enough staff to meet the demand of their communities.
I commend the government for reducing the cost of child care, but cheaper child care doesn’t help parents forced to wait more than a year on waitlists. It doesn’t help mums forced to drive an hour to neighbouring towns just to access child care. That means more money spent on fuel and less time working at a time when families are already doing it tough. When families can’t access affordable child care, it’s usually the mother who stays home. This means less opportunity to work part time or full time, to run a small business or to contribute to the local community. And it reinforces the gender pay gap and makes it harder for women to balance parenthood and work.
Without finding practical solutions to these challenges, we stop parents from working, hold our children back from achieving their full potential and slow the economic development of the regions. Regional Australia needs solutions now. I want to see more incentives for graduating teachers to move to the regions. I’ve also supported adding teaching to the approved worklist for visas, allowing qualified teachers to help plug gaps in the teaching workforce while we build a sustainable workforce for the future.
On child care, I’m watching closely to see how the government responds to two recent reports by the ACCC and the Productivity Commission. Firstly, I would say the government should accept the recommendation of the Productivity Commission to allow all families to access up to three days of subsidised child care a week regardless of how many hours they’ve worked. Secondly, the government must do more to improve career and qualification pathways for early childhood education, and we need to fix the pay that childcare educators receive. They need to be paid more. Fixing workforce shortages is critical to setting Australia on a path towards universal child care. As the Productivity Commissioner has said:
Without addressing the educator and teacher challenges we can’t do anything.
This statement was in relation to early childhood education and care, but it could be said of teaching at all levels. Both the Productivity Commission and the ACCC are telling us what we already know: our childcare system and our schools need help. The status quo is holding back regional Australian, and the government must respond and respond fast.