Edenhope childcare service expansion helps parents return to workforce

A decades-long campaign to improve childcare in a remote western Victorian town is paying off for a hairdresser who is looking forward to going back to work.

Childcare centre in town of 900 people doubles enrolment capacity
About 1.1 million Australians don’t have access to childcare
The government has committed to review the affordability and accessibility of childcare
Edenhope mum Kirralee Wallis’s sons Luka and Leo will be able to attend a childcare centre that was limited to four children because there was only one carer in the town of 900 people available to teach them.

But that has changed after the local council launched a two-year pilot program to double enrolments to eight.

Ms Wallis said it meant she could start back in her home-based salon next week.

“It’s really been a bit scary waiting to hear whether we would have a spot, whether I could go back to work, because the local town needs a hairdresser and if I can’t get childcare, my salon can’t reopen,” she said.

Ms Wallis said she and her husband even discussed leaving Edenhope if a childcare spot didn’t come up.

“I was hoping Leo could get in three days (like Luka) so I could still work those days and it worked out perfectly so I feel incredibly lucky,” Ms Wallis said.

“But I know there are people that missed out too so we need more.”

A survey of the town’s teachers, business owners and doctors last year found there were 38 families that currently or would soon need childcare in the Edenhope, Apsley and Goroke areas.

Why it matters

Edenhope mum Shelley Hartle said securing a childcare spot allowed her to take on more hours at the Edenhope hospital at a time when healthcare workers were hard to find.

Ms Hartle was part of a vocal group of working mothers who lobbied West Wimmera Shire Council last year, resulting in a $50,000 feasibility study into a council-funded childcare service rather than a privately-operated one.

The childcare is being rolled out with funding support from the Commonwealth Child Care Subsidy Program.

Ms Hartle said it felt great to see her daughter Daisy at the service she fought for.

“I guess what we wanted was choice for families in the region of all shapes, colours and sizes, and we’ve come pretty close to achieving that,” she said.

Ms Hartle hoped the number of places would double from eight to 16 later this year.

West Wimmera Shire Council executive James Bentley said recruiting adequate staff would be the main obstacle to growing the service.

“We can’t magic them out of thin air, so that’s why we are very mindful of the fact that we don’t make promises we can’t keep,” he said.

What works in the bush
Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute published research in March showing just how common situations like Edenhope’s were.

Lead researcher Peter Hurley said about 35 per cent of Australia was a childcare desert and 1.1 million Australians had no access to childcare at all, usually in towns of fewer than 1500 people.

“The childcare system in Australia is organised very differently to schools or preschools and kindergartens,” Dr Hurley said.

“What the childcare system does is it sets the market settings and it’s up to providers to open where they think it’s economically viable.

“What that means is you get places where there is a greater concentration of childcare available, often that is in inner suburban areas where they can charge higher fees.”

He said the new Labor government had committed to a review of the affordability and accessibility of childcare, but no action was likely in this term of government.

“We are not going to be able to solve this problem by continuing with the same structure that we have at the moment,” he said.