The report of, and government responses to, the Review of the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access (UA) to Early Childhood Education (the NP) have been published by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Education Council. The overall results show that the 2013 performance target for the percentage of children enrolled in a quality preschool program in the year before full-time schooling was met. However, there was noticeable disparity between the achievement of jurisdictions, and many of the NP’s other commitments, including those for Indigenous and vulnerable and disadvantaged children, were not met.
The Review’s findings show that in 2013:
- all jurisdictions, except New South Wales, met or exceeded the 95% benchmark for preschool enrolments; four jurisdictions met the enrolment benchmark for vulnerable and disadvantaged children; and five jurisdictions met the benchmark for Indigenous children and
- nationally, 82% of all enrolled children, and 87% of enrolled Indigenous children were enrolled in a program for at least 15 hours per week in the year before full-time schooling, falling short of the 95% target.
The Review, however, could not report on all key elements of the UA commitment, including the enrolment hours for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and the quality of the early childhood education (ECE) teaching workforce, because of data limitations.
Amongst other findings, the Review suggested that the government preschool model has been more effective in achieving UA outcomes than preschool provision in long day care centres (LDCCs), although at greater cost. The Review’s questioning of the ‘stringent regulation of the sector,’ which it considered limited the efficiency of preschool services, may also affect the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care (NQF) which is currently under review.
All state and territory governments reported significant achievements as a result of the UA funding. The Australian Government, in its response, also noted that a number of jurisdictions had reported further progress since August 2013, which was the data collection point for the Review.
There are some limitations with the Review. One is that the Review was not specifically asked to make recommendations about the future provision of UA; rather, the report highlights ‘lessons’ to inform its future development. Other deficiencies were highlighted by state and territory governments. There were adverse comments about the Review’s methodology and its funding estimates. There was also some concern that the Review did not examine the potential impact of discontinuing UA funding.
Funding for universal access
The Review estimates that total government recurrent expenditure of $9.1 billion will be required to maintain UA from 2015 to 2019.
Based on the latest figures available from the Productivity Commission and current arrangements, state and territory governments would continue to bear the major financial responsibility for preschool services. In 2013–14, total government recurrent expenditure on preschool services amounted to $1.5 billion, of which state and territory governments contributed $1.2 billion (81.9%) and the Australian Government, under the NP arrangements, provided $0.3 billion.
This calculation does not take into account Child Care Benefit (CCB) and Child Care Rebate (CCR), which are designed to assist families with child care costs, that the Government considers a ‘major funding channel’ for preschool programs delivered through LDCCs. There are no published estimates for how much CCB and CCR funding goes toward children in preschool programs.
The Review also considers the role of private contributions, particularly significant in those jurisdictions where preschool provision is mostly provided by government and where parent contributions are minimal. According to the Review, evidence suggests that ‘the long term sustainability of universal access would be enhanced by the elicitation of greater levels of private funding.’
The future of universal access
The uncertainty about the future of UA funding has been a continuing concern for state and territory governments and for the ECE sector generally. These concerns have been reinforced by the Review’s acknowledgment that ‘impacts of uncertainty about future funding’ were indicative of the ‘critical role of funding in ongoing policy delivery’.
It would seem that the Review’s report and the final report of the Productivity’s Commission inquiry into Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, which recommended the continuation of UA funding, now provide the Government with the evidence necessary to make an informed decision about the future of UA. The timing of this decision is not certain. It may take place as part of the Government’s expected child care and families package in the forthcoming budget. However, there has also been mention that the ultimate future of UA access may also depend on the NQF review and the Reform of Federation White Paper.
There also still remain the significant issues of recruitment, retention and shortages in the ECE workforce. Neither the Review nor the Productivity Commission inquiry report have provided recommendations for their resolution.
For further information and discussion, see M Harrington, Universal access to early childhood education: a quick guide, Research paper series, 2013–14, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 1 May 2014; and M Harrington, More funding for early childhood education: an update, FlagPost, Parliamentary Library blog, 16 September 2014.