Robbing Peter – but to pay who? Universal Access funding on the chopping block

by Freya Lucas

September 11

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.

The Federal Government’s $440 million Universal Access funding for preschool programs is set to discontinue from 2020, threatening Australia’s access to affordable preschool services. The Sector Assistant Editor Freya Lucas reflects on the benefits of the funding and the challenges for the sector in providing education and care without the scheme.

 

Even to an adult, 440 million seems an impossibly big number. To Peter, who is 4 years old, 440 million is how many grains of sand there were the very first time he went to the beach. He’s got fond memories of running away from the waves, looking for tiny crabs, and collecting shells.

 

440 million means something quite different to the people who’ve made some decisions of late, about Peter’s future, and about just how much 4 year olds are worth. As the Financial Review recently reported, $440 million is the funding amount that the sector stands to lose in 2020 with the cessation of the Universal Access funding scheme currently supported by the Federal Government.

 

Couple this with the reported cuts to the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education , and by 2020 it’s a savings package of close to half a billion dollars – even Peter knows that’s a heck of a lot of money for someone to find… but who?

 

Currently state and federal governments partner to offer families with 4 year olds 15 hours per week of affordable preschool education, taught by a qualified early childhood teacher in the year before starting school. As a function of the quality provisions associated with the National Quality Framework, the highly successful Universal Access scheme which funds these opportunities has increased access to preschool education, with preschool enrolments for eligible children increasing from 12 per cent in 2008 to 91 per cent in 2015.

 

Funding has made preschool a more accessible option for families, and with research highlighting the social, emotional, economic and societal gains to be made from solid and continuous investment in the early years, there’s little doubt about the value and success of the Universal Access scheme. We seem to all agree that access to tertiary qualified educators in the year before school is a good thing, but we can’t seem to agree on who should be left to foot the bill, post 2020.

 

With early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Australia being disproportionately funded by private sources, and with a high proportion of non-government ECEC services (77 per cent of children attend private, not-for-profit, or community-run services compared to the OECD average of 32 per cent) within the sector, the funding withdrawal poses a real threat for service providers, many of whom operate on a government-dependent private setting model. With more than half of the core funding for service provision being subject to governmental whims, OECD has previously warned of the potential dangers of such a model.

 

We know that parents believe strongly in the benefits of a preschool education, with 94 per cent believing that preschool should be viewed as part of the education system and as important as primary school. Affordability plays a large part in this decision making, however  when we look at stand-alone preschool attendance (that is, attendance not associated with long day care, and other funded models), only 15 per cent of Australian children attend a preschool setting at 3 years of age. Many parents site cost as a significant barrier to their 3 year old attending preschool sessions.

 

Those who provide preschool services are staring down the barrel of a conundrum – a looming absence of a large body of funding, a bank of potential customers hampered by an inability to meet unsubsidised costs, an inevitably shrinking pool of qualified and experienced early childhood teachers as more and more service providers open, and a wage pool anticipated to rise to $922.7 million by 2023.

 

It’s a space in which questions are many and answers are few – a space which, thankfully, Peter knows nothing about. Luckily, for him as a 4 year old in 2018, he has a chance to have 15 hours of subsidised play-based learning around caring, qualified adults who want to see him succeed. A chance to have the kind of education that sometimes only money can buy.

 

There are chances here too for those offering these services. Opportunity is knocking and is asking service providers to be innovative and forward thinking, to review models of service provision, and to consider alternative options for a future where Universal Access funding is no longer the goose that laid the golden egg and brought all those 4 year olds through the door. 2020, like winter, is coming, and sooner than you might think.

 

These funding cuts rob those children who come after Peter, and perhaps we should reflect on who benefits from taking funding and education away from 4 year olds? We know someone wins – someone in Canberra, far away from Peter and his dreams. A bottom line balances, numbers turn from red to black. Someone ticks a spreadsheet, and goes home saying “job done”.

 

Someone wins – but it isn’t Peter or the services aiming to provide him with the appropriate provision of education and care.

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