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'It would be a terrible outcome': Preschool sector fears looming funding cut

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

Early childhood advocates fear the Morrison government is preparing to scale back federal funding for preschools, with a consultancy firm engaged to look at current funding arrangements ahead of next year's budget.

Management consultancy Nous Group was tasked in September with reviewing the "efficiency, effectiveness and equity" of a national partnership agreement between the Commonwealth and the states, which grants 600 hours of subsidised early learning in the year before children start school.

The terms of reference for the review, which reports to an education ministers' meeting in December, say it will "inform consideration of future funding and policy settings".

The federal government announced $449.5 million for preschool (which is called kindergarten in Victoria) in April, but this only covers the 2020 school year. In the wake of the budget, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg noted that while the government had funded preschools every year since its election, it was "primarily the responsibility of the states". He also flagged concerns about low attendance rates.

Peak body Early Childhood Australia has been calling for preschool funding to be made long-term and expanded to three-year-olds. But it is worried the government may instead reduce its involvement, particularly as it looks to fund extra support for aged care, mental health and drought relief, while maintaining a surplus.

"We're of the view that the federal government may be considering walking away from preschool funding," ECA chief executive Samantha Page said. "I think it would be a terrible outcome for children. It would undermine parents and concern all those involved in the education system."

Victorian Labor education minister James Merlino warned that any moves to scale back federal funding would "jeopardise access high quality kindergarten programs for Victorian families.”

"We have been very clear with the federal government that securing a long term and fair funding agreement for kinder is a high priority for us and this view has not changed."

Other early education groups have privately expressed concerns about funding, but declined to speak publicly due to confidentiality agreements signed as part of the Nous review.

Asked if groups were right to be concerned about funding, federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said the government had funded preschool every year since being elected, with funding growing every year.

"The government wrote to state and territory education ministers in early 2018 outlining three issues it wanted to address: the need for better data, improved preschool participation, and implementation of a fair national funding model," he said.

"The government is working with the states and territories on future arrangements that will focus on lifting preschool participation rates, especially for disadvantaged and Indigenous children."

The Early Learning and Care Council of Australia represents the largest private and not-for-profit early learning providers in Australia. ELACCA chief executive Elizabeth Death said her members were looking for "strong leadership and support from Mr Tehan to ensure a sustainable future, including a minimum 600 hours of quality early learning for all Australian children in the year before school".

While all its policies are now under review, Labor went to the federal election with a plan to extend free preschool to three year-olds, as well as a longer-term funding for the four year-old program, at an initial cost of $1.75 billion over four years.

Labor's early education spokeswoman Amanda Rishworth said Mr Tehan "needs to guarantee permanent funding for all four year-old children now".

"All of the evidence calls for governments to invest in two years of preschool, but the Morrison government will not even commit to ongoing funding for one year," she said.

Source: The Age

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