Preschool on the political agenda

Childrens Choice spokesperson Bianca Urbina, with Nimbin Preschool director, Di Gregory.

by Amanda RankinAs the new school year gets under way and a state election looms, preschool funding and the importance of early childhood education are high on the political agenda, and no one could be happier than Nimbin Preschool director, Dianne Gregory.

Welfare groups, political parties and school principals have all recently spoken out about the states community preschool crisis and the urgent need for funding allocation, an issue that preschool directors and parents have been shouting about for years.

Like all community preschools in the region, Nimbin Preschool attempts to keep its fees low but 2007 saw an unavoidable increase of up to 50 per cent, and in the first week of the school term Dianne has already seen the consequences.

I know of two families who have cut back the days their children will attend our preschool because of the cost, said Dianne. Ninety per cent of our parents pay the lowest possible fee, which last year was eight dollars and now has gone up to 12, and these families constantly struggle to come up with the money.

The cost of preschool education for NSW parents is about eight times higher than in most other states, where it is virtually free for four-year-olds. In NSW, preschools can cost up to $35 a day, a price many parents cannot afford to pay.

The NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS) has called for an urgent investment into early childhood education after details of NSWs poor performance were detailed in the recently released Productivity Commissions Report on Government Services 2007.

It confirmed that the proportion of four-year-olds attending preschool in NSW was the lowest in the country and the NCOSS is concerned that it is children from low socio-economic backgrounds who miss out.

Meanwhile the NSW Primary Principals Association (PPA) has demanded that the current state government address the preschool crisis and match the oppositions commitment of a $362 million early education package. The PPA surveyed more than 40 principals and revealed what many people already knew that children who miss out on early childhood learning show a clear disadvantage once they start school.

Almost all the principals who responded to the survey identified the differences in performance of kindergarten students who had been to preschool compared to those who had not.

The preschool funding lobby group, Childrens Choice, has welcomed the spotlight suddenly thrown onto the issue in the lead-up to elections with the accompanying flurry of pre-election promises.

Although preschools are currently funded by the state government, this week the Federal Opposition leader, Kevin Rudd made a splash in the media with an early election promise of $450 million a year to improve early childhood education. Labors plan includes funding across all childcare, private and public, and a promise to create extra university places to account for the shortage of early childhood teachers.

Meanwhile at a state level, the NSW Coalition has promised to provide the $362 million early education package that was announced in March, 2006, to improve affordability and increase preschool participation. The NSW Greens have announced their education policy would give NSW children two years of universal, free preschool education.

This kind of commitment to the importance of early childhood education is fantastic but there are a lot of ifs involved with these kinds of promises, said Childrens Choice spokesperson, Bianca Urbina. But it is very encouraging to see the childhood education debate put on the national agenda and it might at least see Australia catch up with the rest of the world.

We are thrilled that principals from around the state are now talking publicly about this issue and are committed to campaigning for a better preschool policy in the lead up to the March election.

The Iemma government has invested an extra $85.2 million in preschool programs over the next four years but this isnt anywhere near enough, according to Bianca.

The only way we will see an improvement in the participation rate is a radical reduction in fees. Preschool is simply too expensive for many NSW familes, she said. If this government is serious about providing the best possible start to school for all NSW children it will make preschool one of its key election issues by announcing a funding boost of at least four times the $85 million pledged.

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