Single mother Naomi Benson says she is fortunate that her grandmother, Carol, can help her care for Mason and Cooper. (ABC News: Peta Doherty)
City-based families may be benefiting from a glut in the childcare sector, but the closure of just one centre in a regional area can bring a town to its knees.
Naomi Benson was forced to drive more than 1,000 kilometres a week to access care when the largest centre in Cooma, at the foot of the Snowy Mountains, suddenly closed its doors this month.
It has left 70 families facing tough decisions around leaving their jobs or leaving town altogether.
“I’m one of the lucky ones, with family who can help,” said Ms Benson, a single mother of twin four-year old boys.
Ms Benson has been making the trip to her grandparents’ place in Nowra twice a week, determined to keep the three-day-a-week job she considers a leg-up in the mental health sector.
“It’s an eight-hour round trip to actually get care for them … that’s unfair to a four-year-old, but that’s what we have to do at the moment,” she said.
“We were given two weeks’ notice in an email sent at 8:30 in the morning.”
A nightmare for any parent. But what then happens if every other centre in the town is full?
Active Achievers in Cooma gave parents two weeks’ notice before it closed down. (ABC News: Daniel Doody)
“Our biggest fear is a lot of families are now going to be in a position they are going to have to leave their jobs to care for their children or relocate out of our region,” a former manager at the centre, Emma Rolfe, said.
Ms Rolfe said some families had found places in Jindabyne, 60 kilometres away, but others had been forced to take annual leave.
According to Mayor John Rooney some parents, including council employees, were now reconsidering their ability to work at all.
“It’s a very sad situation for the families in Cooma who are affected,” he said.
“It’s a serious concern for major employers in Cooma.
“Parents are getting desperate.”
Centre for Independent Studies senior analyst Eugenie Joseph, who has been looking at the impact of state and federal policies in the sector, found a stark difference between families living in the city and those in regional areas.
“In some of the major cities we are seeing what is reported to be a glut of childcare centre in some urban locations, which arguably is good for parents in terms of choice and competition. But that is definitely not playing out in other areas of Australia,” Ms Joseph said.
Government polices exacerbating childcare issues in the regions
Mayor Rooney said he was frustrated another potential provider had been unable to take on Active Achievers because it would have taken three months to get a licence.
According to Ms Joseph the process was a consequence of the complex regulatory system.
“The sector is less agile, and services can’t easily start up and stay viable — even in areas where there is clear demand for childcare,” she said.
In an email to parents, the owner of Active Achievers said the business was unviable due to “financial constraints, oversupply of centres, and lack of solid government infrastructure plans in Cooma, which includes Snowy Hydro”.
The families who have been left with no care options do not believe there is an oversupply in Cooma but Ms Joseph’s examination of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care published in August found staff-to-child ratio restrictions and qualification requirements were exacerbating innate difficulties for providers in regional areas.
“Obviously these rules are having a greater impact on regional services where it is harder to find staff with diploma and university qualifications,” she said.
Last year 11 per cent of centres in rural locations had to apply for a waiver from their staffing regulations compared to 3 per cent nationally.
One of these centres is Little Nippers Early Learning and Childcare in Merimbula, a popular coastal holiday destination between Melbourne and Sydney.
Sharon Walker says it was difficult finding qualified staff, so she undertook an early childhood education degree herself. (ABC News: Peta Doherty)
Owner and director Sharon Walker has found it so difficult to find university educated staff she undertook the degree herself.
“Those who traditionally go straight to university go into the pre-school or primary sector,” Ms Walker said.
“Why wouldn’t you when they get 12 weeks’ holiday a year and we work 52 weeks a year.”
Ms Walker said meeting staffing ratios were also difficult in a remote area. And obtaining a waiver was complicated, costly, and took months to obtain.
NSW is among the strictest states when it comes to staff-to-child ratios and qualifications.
“If I was 80 kilometres away in Victoria I would only require one [university educated teacher],” Ms Walker said.
“And they are the highest-paid people and the most difficult to employ down here.
“I would love to pay my educators more but the only way this will happen to the extent they deserve is if the governments fund or partially fund educator wages.”
According to the Centre for Independent Studies’ analysis there was no conclusive evidence to show staffing polices had a measurable effect on child development.
“We do know requirements are making it more expensive and affecting the supply of childcare in regional areas. I think a more flexible approach to regulations is really needed,” Ms Joseph said.
Meanwhile in Cooma the closure of Active Achievers was beginning to snowball into other centres.
At least one mother has been told places booked for next year can no longer be guaranteed.
For now, Naomi Benson’s grandmother has come to the rescue, staying in Cooma for a while to give Mason and Cooper a break from car trips.