Pre-kindy bootcamp: A,B, Gee that's young!
Children aged three to four-years-old are primed for school at the Keep Learning centre in Leichhardt.
It is 9am on Friday and four-year-old Nicholas has bowled up to class in Leichhardt's Italian Forum, he's shyly holding a piece of paper in his hand. It's his homework, he says, as he presents it to his "school readiness" teacher, Violeta Dimeska.
Nicholas' friend, Freya, follows him into the glass-panelled room, a zoo of alphabets and picture books, finger paints and pencils. On top of the stereo sits a sound track titled "Off to School" featuring the classic hits, One Times Table, Ding Dong d and One Potato Two Potato. On the wall next to it is a sign of things to come, "the art of essay writing".
Welcome to kindy bootcamp, where children as young as three come once a week to get primed for school and the push to get them assessment-ready starts years before they spy a school gate.
Freya, who has fashioned herself a Sinead O'Connor style haircut with some rogue hairdressing the night before, fiddles with her remaining curls as she stares at Nicholas as he draws a goldfish that looks more like a cloud. "Under the sea," the class yells, as mini-Sinead jumps up and sketches an extra spiky one.
It's mostly animals, letters and homework based on words that start with "St" at the Keep Learning centre in Leichhardt, but getting kids "school ready" is big business too.
Kumon, one of the world's tutoring multinationals with 4.2 million students around the globe and 42,000 students in Australia, has had its pre-school English enrolments surge by 63 per cent since 2011, at the same time as its maths courses have grown by 38 per cent.
At the same time smaller, local rivals are expanding, feeding into the perceived need to get kids up to scratch, as the NSW government institutes progress tests from kindergarten and the nation's NAPLAN assessments grow in spectre. The Australian Tutoring company runs the Leichhardt centre and another in the north shore, while it plans to open another in the Hills district as the cottage industry swells to meet demand.
"It's not like childcare," says the manager of the Keep Learning centre, 24-year-old Natalia Festa.
"It is more in-depth, with less of the unstructured play you get in childcare. You compare the children that don't get this extra help with those that do, when they get to kindergarten you can see the big difference."
They start early. This week three- to four-year-olds in the centre's "ready set grow class" are learning about summer, imagining all the outfits they get to wear, and the letters M and N. "We send homework each week, just as a recap of what we did. They do that with mum and dad," says Ms Festa.
As for tests, the centre prefers to call them checklists. "Can they identify the alphabet, we test them on basic sight words like me and my. We don't assess them, we just see where they are up to," she says.
"It is pretty basic stuff, we don't expect them to read before they get to school, it's just so they are not shocked when they get there."
But others in the industry are not so convinced.
"There's absolutely no advantage to it, it's wasting parents' time and money," says Dr Shona Bass, an early childhood education expert and author of the Australian Council of Education Research's guide to play-based learning.
Dr Bass says the proliferation of pre-kindy tutoring was "what we refer to as the push down effect, where opportunities are being presented to children earlier and earlier all in the name of giving them the best start in life", she says.
"But in most instances it's the polar opposite, because little children need to be little children."
"We have a very strong view that school readiness is related to a child's social and emotional maturity … Social, emotional maturity is like all those other developmental milestones, it has its own pathway for each child. It's not something that you can hurry up."
Carolin Wenzel, a spokeswoman for Early Childhood Australia, is also sceptical about the benefits of "school readiness" programs.
"Mostly what children need to get ready for school is not being hothoused to learn their alphabets, it's more to do with being able to get along with other kids, learning social and emotional skills.
"Our main struggle is to make sure that all children in Australia have access to two days a week quality early learning and that's still not happening," she says.