​Why the AEU is fighting for permanent preschool funding

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Australian Educator Feature

For the third time in four years, early educators are ramping up the campaign to make 15 hours per week of quality preschool, taught by a university-trained teacher, a permanent, ongoing entitlement for every four-year-old.

The evidence of the value of preschool is growing stronger every day, and educators in kindergartens, long-day care and primary schools can see the proof in every child they teach. Fifteen hours makes a significant difference to their charges’ confidence, relationships, development and readiness to learn.

However, the federal government funding that since 2013 has made ‘universal access’ possible will run out – again – at the end of 2017.

AEU members are firm in their resolve to secure ongoing funding to protect preschools from the uncertainty of another 18-month or two-year extension.

The AEU will run a campaign this term, aimed at asking parents to tell MPs how important this funding is, and that it must be made permanent in this year’s federal budget.

If you want to show your support, visit the campaign website and sign the petition for permanent funding for four-year-old preschool.

Without secure funding, the fear is that cash-poor states and territories will drop back to the 10 or 12 hours’ provision they offered before they and then-education minister Julia Gillard signed the National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education and Care.

Next year's children could lose as much as a third of their preschool time.

“Five hours doesn’t sound like much to an adult. But in a little life, it is,” says Victorian preschool teacher Kay Bryan. “For some of them preschool is the only time when they are speaking English or dealing with other children and getting to understand that ebb and flow of conflict and negotiation and sharing.”

Continued positive impact

Bryan’s concerns are supported by research. Dr Stacey Fox, policy fellow at the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University, says the impact of a year of preschool continues throughout primary and secondary school.

Its immediate effect is demonstrated by the Australian Early Development Census, which assesses children about six months into their primary schooling against five domains: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge.

Nearly a quarter of children (22 per cent) will be developmentally vulnerable in at least one domain.

“These are children who are right down at the bottom of their cohort, children who are significantly struggling,” says Fox.

For children who receive at least one year of preschool, the risk of registering as developmentally vulnerable falls by at least a quarter.

“Preschool benefits children from low socioeconomic status backgrounds the most. But it also has an impact on kids throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. It’s a bit of a wonder drug that way.”

However, for preschool to have a sustained effect, children need at least 15 hours a week for at least a year, preferably two, she says.

“Fifteen hours appears, from the international studies, to be the minimum for those impacts to be sustained in the long term.”

The reason for this lies in the building of relationships with adults and other children, which takes time for a four-year-old in a new and complex world. It also gives teachers more time to assess each child’s needs and interests, adapt their curriculum to suit, and access any support they need.

“Children are developing social skills, the ability to get on with their peers, to talk about what they think, feel and see,” says Fox. “They grow in confidence, in language, in their ability to explore and ask questions, discover how things work. They become little scientists who solve problems.

“These things are every bit as important as the fundamental building blocks of numeracy and literacy they might be developing.”

Depth of experience matters

David Coulter, director of Darlington Children’s Centre, in Seacombe Gardens, Adelaide, puts it this way: “In a play-based environment such as preschool or kindergarten, 15 hours gives children more time to rehearse or go more deeply into practising new skills or new thinking.

“It also gives educators more time to work with the children in a deeper way and, particularly in that first term, more time to identify those children who need additional support. More hours means more time for educators and families to get to know each other.”

Bryan, who teaches four-year-olds at Tarralla Kindergarten in Melbourne’s east, says relationships are key to preschool. “Preschool is a relationship-based setting where we’re building self-confidence and self-regulation in the children.”

In a typical year, more than half of Bryan’s class won’t have experienced early education or even childcare. Many will be the only child in their family, so they may be experiencing regular sustained social interactions with other children for the first time.

“We really focus on these emotional literacy skills,” she says.

Many children need extra scaffolding to build these skills because they are very shy or have self-regulation issues.

“There are some busy children who think ‘everything’s mine and I want it now’ [and] we need to help them understand they are affecting other children. They’ve only been on earth for four years. With 15 hours we are able to give them a space where they can take command and show us what they want to learn.”

A 10-hour week would most likely mean children attending for two full consecutive days, so they aren’t coming back for a long time, and children will forget things, says Bryan.

“I’d actually like to see the 20 hours that was first mooted, so we really have time to reinforce those skills.”

Uncertainty hurts educators and parents

It’s not just about the children. The Coalition’s failure to commit to long-term funding means educators and parents are struggling with uncertainty.

Ramping up to 15 hours required a major reorganisation and investment that would have to be dismantled.

“A lot of infrastructure was put in place – we had an extra room built onto our service – and that would be a waste,” says Bryan.

Many teachers and support staff would lose hours and some would lose their jobs. Any parents planning to return to work would have to make other arrangements in a childcare sector already bursting at the seams.

“Parents will lose a day of education for their kids,” says Martel Menz, the AEU’s federal early childhood representative. “The childcare sector can’t accommodate all these children.”