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Private childcare on council agenda - Sydney Council boost for childcare December 2005

Josie Pollak and Hannah Spurr report in The Southside News 4/2005 p1-2 that Sydney City Council will use its planning powers to insist private childcare centres are included in new developments to meet the serious shortage of childcare places in inner Sydney.

It will also spend $400,000 provide 22 extra childcare places at two Council-owned childcare centres in Alexandria and Redfern.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore told Southside News that the Council's first assessment of care needs, The Child Needs Study had confirmed -there's been a hit of a baby boom in the city…people are deciding to stay in the city with their children rather than leaving as they've done in the past and Council is looking at encouraging private childcare facilities but also what we (Sydney City Council) can do more".

The shortage of Sydney childcare places is greatest in the inner-west and .eastern Sydney, partly because the booming private childcare industry has focussed on outer suburbs and country towns where land is cheaper. There are also a small number of private care centres in CBD developments, such as World Tower.

A Southside News telephone survey of Sydney childcare centres found a waiting list of more than 700 at Clovelly Childcare and more than 400 at Lady Gowrie Childcare centre in Erskineville.

At the Redfern Occasional Childcare centre. parents have to wait 18 months for a place.

Childcare centres surveyed said that the stresses of their work include dealing with desperate crying parents who cannot find places and need to return to work. Tanya Bennett. director at Clovelly Childcare Centre. said insufficient funding from the government has placed significant pressure on staff resources. "We have been verbally abused over the phone and at the door because we have no places.

"Parents need to target the government not the centres; we can't do anything about it."

Lord Mayor Clover Moore, who recently visited the two private childcare centres in World Tower said," There's a real shortage and it is very stressful.

"Through the DCP [Development Control Plan] we will be able to insist ifs [childcare] part of development which is a very powerful mechanism," she said.

But these suggestions won't help inner city parents seeking affordable childcare centres.

While recently there were a few spare places at ABC Leaning Centre in World Tower, it costs $89 a day which is almost double the cost of local community childcare. Current funding policies make it impossible for not–for-profit community childcare to expand to meet demand. The situation in Erskineville highlights the issue. Lady Gowrie Childcare and SDN (Sydney Day Nursery Inc) Erskineville Early Learning Centre, receive a grant from the NSW Department of Children's Services (DOCS) , but it is only a small part of their budget.

NSW DOCS gives grants to many community centres but Margaret Young, Director of Lady Gowrie, says the Department will not give funding to new centres. She says it has funded set-up costs for a few centres but these are only in outer Sydney.

Young, says DOCS uses its limited funds to target disadvantaged areas which does not include Erskineville and that while there are individuals within local government "who are very interested in childcare", they are constrained by Government policy. "There's no government interested in expanding community childcare, the Commonwealth has its eggs in the growth of private centres, and unless there's a change in policy, that private sector will continue to grow."

 Vivian Medway, cluster manager of two SDN Childcare Centres in the inner-west, says the benefits of community-based childcare centres are obvious. "We have individualised care, highly trained staff and the ratios are higher than the regulations, and we're more community based so we involve the parents more."

Lady Gowrie Childcare centre is run by a management committee which includes parents and has an official philosophy which honours diversity and the UN charter of children's rights.

Margaret Young says: "Parents really like the idea of profit going back into the community.

"What attracts parents to Lady Gowrie is the quality of the program and our emphasis of communication with families," she adds.

While accreditation of childcare means all centres are required to consult with parents, at Erskineville, an individual program for each child and an emphasis on parents is "the hallmark of a good centre, and comes from the community philosophy".

Both Lady Gowrie and SDN Erskineville provide carer-to-child ratios higher than required by policy.

Margaret Young and Vivian Medway say the biggest problem facing community-based centres is the lack of places for nought to two year olds. SDN currently has a waiting list of several hundred for babies, says Medway. "We could fill the Erskineville centre three times over with the babies.

"There's not enough good baby care and parents need to be careful in choosing baby care, it's a really important development time".

Young says: "There's a great need for more childcare, but it's difficult for community-based childcare centres to find that sort of capital."

Private childcare chains have already shown interest in several development sites in Erskineville and Alexandria.

However, Lady Gowrie and SDN are confident of remaining an attractive alternative to newer, private centres.

"I call them the McDonalds of childcare, because they're all the same... they've got the same wall coverings, floor coverings, the same equipment, there's no opportunity for individuality between centres", says Medway.

Additional research by Bonny Symons-Brown