Too little too late

Despite the new funding, NSW still spends a pittance on early education.

Remember Barack Obama playing with a four year old Spiderman in the Oval Office? Seen the girl looking absolutely terrified as Donald Trump holds her hand? Children generally know how to read politicians so it was strange that the children Mike Baird gathered around him as he announced a $115 million “funding increase” for early education in NSW didn’t seem to think he was a bad sort.

Early childhood teachers are perhaps less impressed with Baird’s offerings.

The Auditor General pointed out a few months ago that not only had the government underspent their own early education budget by $350 million over four years but that they also had pocketed $227 million in funds received from the Federal Government for early education.

And this is one of the reasons that preschool teachers are less than impressed, the increase Baird announced was nothing more than some, but not all, of the federal funding he had never passed on!

And it came with yet another new funding model. Showing the Premier’s fondness for social media this one even comes with its own hash tag: #startstrong. But it has all the same hallmarks as its predecessors:

  • Announced to parents as meaning dramatically lower preschool fees
  • Short term – it only runs for 18 months
  • A more complex and more unworkable funding model than the last. Preschool directors need a degree in statistics to be able to work out what funding they will actually receive in the coming year
  • Incredibly bad communication from the Department of Education about the details. Contradictory guidelines released weeks after the announcement
  • Complex changes to which children are eligible for a funded preschool education, and
  • Announced late in the year – after most preschools had completed their enrolments for 2017.

The main issue for Union members is the question of ‘600 hours’. To attract further federal funding the NSW Government needs to increase the number of children in NSW receiving 600 hours of early education in the year before school. The Start Strong package therefore increases per child funding rates for children enrolled for 600 hours per year and tapers it to zero funds for children enrolled for one six hour day per week.

As most community based preschools in NSW currently operate on school hours, this means unless preschools increase their hours from six hours a day to 7.5 hours a day they will lose funding. For example those in the lowest socio economic areas of the state will lose over $3000 per child on current funding for children enrolled for two days per week and $5400 for children enrolled one day per week. If they increase their operating hours to 7.5 hours per day they will receive an extra $1200 for each child that is enrolled for two days.

Preschools definitely can’t afford funding cuts so most are exploring running for the extra hours.

Industrial problem

And herein lies an industrial problem. Depending if they are on contract or the modern award teachers generally are employed for 7.6 hours per day. If teachers are with children for 7.5 hours a day, then where does the time to do set up and programming come from?

If teachers are required to work the extra hours then they will need to be paid for them. But the new funding comes with a catch – 70% of it has to be returned to families as reduced fees. So where is the additional money for additional teachers hours come from?

There is no doubt that some preschools are rejoicing at being able to offer families substantially reduced fees in 2017. Some preschools already run extended hours so the industrial implications are not as huge for them.

Many directors however are faced with a huge impost in understanding the new model and determining what changes to enrolments and operations need to be made to maximise funding at the busiest time of the year and with little clear guidance from the department.

Continual change

The impact of the stress of the continually changing funding models to preschool directors cannot be underestimated, $30 million of the new funding is going to long day care (LDC) services to enable reduces fees for children receiving a preschool program via a LDC service.

In 2017, LDCs will receive $1300 for each child in the year before school that attends two days per week. 90% of LDC funding has to be passed on to parents as reduced fees. The impact of the reduced LDC fees on enrolments at both LDCs and preschools has not been modelled by the government.

Despite the new funding, NSW still spends a pittance on early education. If Baird finds the money that other states have and stops overselling lame policy announcements with hashtags, he may just find himself being liked by those with slightly more cynicism at the sight of a politician in a preschool than the average four year old.

Lisa Bryant
Early Childhood Consultant