Parents in Charlton were relieved when a daycare centre was built. But 18 months on, it’s still empty

Key points

  • A childcare centre has sat empty for 18 months in the Wimmera town of Charlton. 
  • Parents say the lack of childcare means they cannot go back to work. 
  • Almost 40 per cent of Victoria is covered by a childcare “desert”. 

A childcare centre has been sitting empty for more than 18 months in the northern Victorian town of Charlton because no one can be found to run it despite huge demand from parents for the service.

The Wimmera town is among many childcare deserts across Victoria where desperate parents say the absence of long daycare – which usually begins early in the morning and goes until after 5pm – is preventing them from re-entering the workforce.

Parents in Charlton are desperate for a childcare provider to move into their purpose-built centre. Credit:Eddie Jim

Construction on the centre, funded by the state government, was completed in June 2021, but since then, no one has been willing to operate it. A kindergarten room opened in the same building but only offers part-time hours.

Mother-of-three Jess McGurk, who lives in the Charlton region, said some families were leaving the town because they could not work without long daycare.

McGurk is a school teacher who is qualified to fill local job shortages, but the lack of childcare in town means she cannot go back to work.

“I can’t see myself back at work for the next four years,” she said.

McGurk said the lack of childcare was a topic of constant conversation among parents in Charlton whose hopes were raised when the centre opened, only to be dashed by the failure to secure a provider.

“We have such low expectations now,” she said. “We don’t expect anything to change anytime soon.”

Analysis from the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University shows 39.4 per cent of regional Victoria’s population is classified as living in a childcare desert, covering about 600,000 people of all ages. Lorne-Anglesea, the Benalla region, Panton Hill-St Andrews, Rushworth and Yarriambiack are top of the table in regional Victoria.

But the institute’s director, Peter Hurley, said Charlton was considered a childcare desert, defined as more than three children vying for each place, even when the town’s kindergarten was included.

The Buloke Shire Council said it spent $1.175 million in state government grants on upgrading early learning facilities in five local towns, including Charlton.

The council said Charlton was in dire need of quality childcare services, and it was negotiating with two providers.

The federal government, which is primarily responsible for provision of childcare, has committed to increasing subsidies for families.

And during the state election campaign last November, Premier Daniel Andrews announced the government would open and run 50 childcare centres.

Mother-of-three Jess McGurk with son Jack. She is calling for childcare in Charlton. Credit:Eddie Jim

Hurley said the 50 new centres were a good start, but the shortage was a “chronic issue”.

“The question is whether it’s going to be enough,” he said.

Hurley said the state government should include early learning centres whenever new schools were built, helping reduce construction costs and giving the centres access to the schools’ administration and educational expertise.

A state government spokesman said the 50 childcare centres would be established in the areas with the greatest need. He said the government was investing almost $370 million to support and retain the kindergarten workforce.

The daycare room in Charlton is ready to go, but there is no one to operate it.Credit:Eddie Jim

The government has announced plans to open four childcare centres in 2025. And it confirmed subsequent centres would be built from 2026 to 2028 with 26 locations already announced.

Jay Weatherill, director of the Thrive By Five group campaigning for better childcare, said the shortage of places was most acute in regional and outer metropolitan areas.

He said many educators were leaving the sector because the pay was so poor.

“This turnover is the enemy of high-quality childhood development,” he said. “It’s destructive of trusted relationships.”

Charlton mother Lori Mills, with four-month-old Nixi, is among the parents calling for childcare. Credit:Eddie Jim

Murtoa, in Victoria’s north-west, will get one of the state government’s centres.

Jo Martin, executive officer of the By Five initiative that is lobbying for better childcare access in the Wimmera Southern Mallee, said some families were travelling up to an hour to access care.

Martin said she was thrilled when the state government announced it would establish a centre at Murtoa College, but finding workers for the centre would be a serious challenge.

A report released by the group last year found there were more than 300 children on waiting lists for childcare in the region, but there was a shortage of 84 workers who were required to meet the known demand.

“We’re hoping a lot of staff can be trained from within the community, but we’re competing with every other industry, particularly in the care sector,” Martin said.

She said many parents had no option but to rely on family to provide childcare.

“You only need a grandparent to become unwell or go on holidays and all of a sudden, you’ve got no childcare.”

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