Three-year-olds need preschool time as well

The benefits of preschool education are well known and continue into schooling years.
The benefits of preschool education are well known and continue into schooling years. 

While babies and politicians often go hand-in-hand in the lead up to an election, the pollies may want to steer clear as many three-year-olds dissolve in tears when they discover they can no longer enrol in their local community-based preschool.

At this time of year for the past 30 years or so, families have taken their three-year-olds for their first day at preschool, a rite of passage a few years before they moved on to "big school".

This year it won't be happening. Due to a quiet change in NSW government policy, community-based preschools will no longer receive funding for three-year-olds unless they are from low-income families or are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The funding has been removed to encourage preschools to ensure all children have access to preschool education in their year before school and that children from the so called "equity groups" of low-income and Aboriginal families have two years of access.

The plan looks good on paper - all children get some funded preschool education and those who will benefit the most get more of it. It also matches the federal government's desire that every child will get at least 15 hours of preschool education in the year before school. About 90 per cent of preschools in NSW are community based and all are subject to the changed funding rules. Although preschools can still theoretically enrol three-year-old children at cost price, few families can afford the unfunded fees and many preschools have been forced to cut their three-year-old places entirely to ensure they receive enough funding to survive. 

The core of the problem lies in the NSW government's chronic underspending on early education. And it's not just a problem with the current government. The previous Labor government did no better.

In most states in Australia (WA, SA, TAS, ACT and NT), more than 70 per cent of families can enrol their child in a preschool for free. In Victoria, 90 per cent of families pay less than $24 per day. In NSW, the fees vary from town to town but more than 30 per cent of families pay between $30 and $54 a day. The reason for the discrepancy is the amount of funding each state spends on early education and care. The ACT government spends $540 per child. Victoria spends $279, South Australia $563 and WA $664. NSW only spends $210 per child.

Soon after his appointment as Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli promised that the funding discrepancy between NSW and the other states would change when money became available.

Almost four years on, nothing has changed. Budget after budget in NSW has seen the same funding allocation being made to community-based preschools. Funding from the Commonwealth under a national partnership designed to ensure universal access to preschool education has had little effect on the issue, except for allowing the NSW government to shift blame to their federal counterparts.

Families are getting angry that they can no longer enrol three-year-olds because services need to ensure they are receiving funding for each enrolment. Women are having to delay their return to work. Local MPs are sick of getting an earful from preschools in their electorate. Some preschools are considering closing or are being forced to close classrooms. Without three-year-olds to ensure full occupancy and with fees too high for their communities to afford due to chronic underfunding, they are no longer viable.  Families are reluctant to enrol children for just one year. In many small towns preschools are part of the glue that holds the fabric of the town together – and it's beginning to unravel.

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Preschools operating in Aboriginal communities are doing it tough too. Although they can get funding for three and four-year-olds, they can no longer cater for the two-year-olds many have always enrolled.

All of this is happening at a time when the benefits of preschool education are so well known. Even US President Barack Obama has taken up the cause. Australian research shows that children who have received a preschool education score 15-20 points higher on their year 5 NAPLAN test. Research from the international OECD exams shows that children who have had two years of preschool education score, on average, a full year ahead of their counterparts at age 15.

NSW preschools will be campaigning on the issue around the state election.  There will be a number of parents who have discovered when they went to enrol their three-year-olds that there is no room at the inn for them. Both major parties may need to consult their discretionary funding buckets to see if they can increase funding for early education to the level of other states and importantly to see if there is enough to restore funding to three-year-olds. If the other states and territories can provide their children with low-cost preschool, why can't NSW?

Lisa Bryant is a consultant in the early education and care sector.

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