The Government has announced that it will provide $406 million for the continuation of support for universal access to early childhood (preschool) education in the year before full-time schooling in 2015. This is the same level of funding that was provided for 2014 in the 2013–14 Budget. There is also a new condition placed on the funding; namely, that state and territory governments use the universal access funding to also fund preschool services provided in long day care centres (LDCs).
The announcement follows repeated assertions by the Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley, that the future of Australian Government funding for early childhood education would be determined once the scheduled review of the National Partnership for Universal Access to Early Childhood Education, under which universal access funding was originally provided and which expired on 30 June 2013, was completed. She has also stated that the Government will wait for the final report of the Productivity Commission’s (PC’s) inquiry into childcare and early childhood learning.
The review of the National Partnership has been completed and its report was discussed at the August meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Education Council. The Council noted that while there had been ‘significant successes’ in increasing access to, and participation in, preschool programs, the universal access commitment has not been fully met and there was still further work to do. The Government’s announcement of interim funding for 2015 would appear to be a response to the Council’s concern that there was an ‘urgent need’ for a funding decision from the Australian Government to ‘provide certainty for families and the sector as soon as possible’. The review’s report has not yet been published.
While the Government’s announcement has been welcomed, there is some disappointment that the additional funding is only for a further year. There are also some questions about the requirement for state and territory governments to provide their universal access funding for preschool services delivered in LDCs.
Early childhood education services are provided in a variety of settings:
- stand-alone preschools run by governments, and community and for-profit organisations
- preschools that are integrated with schools (government and non-government) and
- preschool programs provided in LDCs.
Under the National Partnership arrangements, state and territory governments have discretion as to how to use their universal access funding and what type of preschool services they support, subject to their implementation plans. As the draft report of the PC’s inquiry noted, only the Queensland, Victorian and South Australian governments provide universal access funding for preschool programs in LDCs.
The Government has not announced how it will implement the new requirement. However, it would seem that, without increasing the amount of funding, the new requirement is likely to have a significant impact on preschool provision in those jurisdictions which have a significant proportion of children attending LDC preschool programs and which do not currently fund these programs. Using these criteria, NSW and the ACT would be most affected given that Australian Bureau of Statistics preschool enrolment data show that 55% of NSW preschool children and 30% of ACT preschool children, discounting those who were enrolled in more than one provider type, were enrolled in LDC preschool programs in 2013. The reaction to the Government’s announcement from these two jurisdictions has been mixed. The ACT Minister for Education and Training has welcomed the extension of funding but is assuming that there will be increased Commonwealth funding for the extension. The NSW Government has not yet made a decision on whether it will change its preschool funding system.
The Government’s requirement to fund LDC preschool programs is the same as PC’s draft recommendation:
The Australian Government should continue to provide per child payments to the states and territories for universal access to a preschool program of 15 hours per week for 40 weeks per year. This support should be based on the number of children enrolled in state and territory government funded preschool services, including where these are delivered in a long day care service. (Draft recommendation 12.9.)
However, the PC’s draft report does note that directly providing government funding for preschool programs in LDC centres may overlap with child care support. For instance, an LDC provider may be getting paid twice, for the preschool service and through the child care fee paid by the family, which attracts Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate. The PC comments that the ‘preschool services in the LDC setting increases the complexity of the funding arrangements for preschool’ and that adjustments to child care fees would consequently be required.
The Government’s extension of universal access funding to LDC preschool programs as part of its interim arrangements for 2015 may raise a question as to whether the Government has to some extent pre-empted the PC’s final report and the Government’s response to it.
A final decision about the future of universal access funding may still be some time away. Not only is the Government waiting for the PC’s final report (due October 2014), but the Assistant Minister has also stated that the White Paper on the Reform of the Federation and the review of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care may ‘inform the Government on future preschool policy decisions’.
See also: M Harrington, Universal access to early childhood education: a quick guide, Research paper series, 2013–14, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 1 May 2014.