Winner and losers in preschool shake-up

Tumut Preschool will receive significantly more government funding under the restructure
Tumut Preschool will receive significantly more government funding under the restructure

The Department of Education has announced a funding restructure for NSW preschools, which is likely to have mixed results for providers in Tumut and Adelong.

The state government will provide a funding increase of up to 130 percent per child for each four and five year old who attends for a minimum of 15 hours a week, as well as for three year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, for small preschools like Adelong Preschool who do not have enough over-threes in their catchment area to receive adequate subsidies, the restructure could result in a funding cut.

“We’re worse off,” said Director of Adelong Preschool Rachael Hassett. “The new funding will work very well in the larger areas, but we’re a small community preschool that only operates four days a week. So I don’t know what we’re going to do.

“If there’s an abundance of four year olds in your community then that’s great. We’re in a different situation – we take three year olds into our preschool because we need that to sustain us. So we can’t just do our preschool with four year olds, there aren’t that many in Adelong and surrounding areas.

“It means our fees will have to go higher again, and they’re already high.”

The government money is being targeted at children in the year before school, with the overall aim of having NSW children receive a minimum 600 hours of care before they arrive at kindergarten. Four and five year olds attending preschool for 15 hours or more a week are going to be subsidised by the state.

Three year olds or those attending for less than 15 hours a week are not subsidised, unless they are disadvantaged, meaning that to care for these children preschools rely solely on parents’ fees.

However, a Department of Education spokesperson said the government was planning to take steps to ensure small community preschools remained open.

“The NSW Government is committed to ensuring that all children in New South Wales can participate in 600 hours of quality preschool education in the year before school, no matter where they live or what their circumstances are,” they said.

“Preschool peak bodies Community Child Care Co-operative (CCCC) and Community Connections Solutions Australia (CCSA) have welcomed the additional investment in preschool programs as a positive step towards increasing access and affordability for four to five year olds in the year before school.

“The NSW Department of Education is providing information and support to help preschool providers understand the new funding. Extra support will be provided to small preschools in regional and remote areas to ensure they remain viable and can continue to offer this important service within their communities.”

The Department said they were planning to speak to Adelong Preschool soon, but had not at the time of writing.

Tumut Preschool, on the other hand, said that the new funding will be hugely beneficial for their school. Service Manager Tess Herring said that it will enable the school to cut fees and increase services.

“We’re confident that we can reduce fees to a level that makes it so much more accessible for people,” she said. “We can maximise that funding to make fees as cheap as possible for parents while keeping the quality of education that we’ve got.

“We’ve talked about preschools becoming more of a community hub, but there’s a cost associated with that. This gives us more of an opportunity to have support services as well as education come into the preschool – parents are asking for that stuff. For example if they have an issue with a child who needs speech therapy, maybe that can happen here rather than trying to find it out there in the world.”

The funding changes are only applicable to kids who attend preschool for 15 hours a week or more, in a push to get more kids in early education for longer.

About half of the children enrolled at Tumut Preschool currently meet that target, and Mrs Herring said one of the key challenges will be getting those numbers up.

“If you add that up, if they come twice a week that’s still not 15 hours. So we need to look at how we can accommodate that government funding as well as what parents want and expect,” Mrs Herring said.

“The model has been changed, because that’s what’s been shown to be most beneficial for kids. So we need to target the way we run the preschool to encourage parents to send their kids for 15 hours a week. It’s not just reducing fees, it’s how it’s all structured.”

However, she said the preschool is excited by the challenges the injection of funding presents.

“There’s been an increase in the base rate, a huge increase, and it just allows us to do so much more,” she said.

“We think we’ll benefit hugely, and more so our families and the kids that come will benefit. It will be really affordable for everybody, and once we have our board meeting and specifics in place we’ll get that information out to the community.”

NSW preschools have the highest fees and the lowest attendance rates in the country. An auditor-general’s report released earlier this year found that 66 per cent of children are enrolled in preschool for the recommended 15 hours per week, 20 per cent below the national average.

The Baird government has been heavily criticised this year for not spending $350 million they had budgeted for early education, including $220 million handed over by the federal government for that purpose.

Labor early education spokeswoman Kate Washington said the government still needs to account for the rest of that money.

“We’ve got $115 million announced of a $365 million underspend. It’s still more than two-thirds of what’s been budgeted for early childhood education sitting there unspent. And why?” she said to the ABC.

The funding changes will begin on January 1 2017, to be phased in by July.