What the new year of preschool education means for parents

In a show of cross-border bipartisanship, the premiers of Victoria and New South Wales, Daniel Andrews and Dominic Perrottet, on Thursday announced a joint commitment to overhaul early education in the two states over 10 years.

“Today we embark on the greatest transformation of early education in a generation,” they said in a statement. “A long-term policy commitment that will change lives.

“In the next 10 years, every child in Victoria and NSW will experience the benefits of a full year of play-based learning before their first year of school.”

Sounds like a big deal. So what does it mean?

In short, young children in Victoria and NSW will have an optional extra year of education, albeit more informal than school.

The overhaul will consume and expand some existing services in both states.

In Victoria, kinder for four-year-olds will be recast as “pre-prep”, with the transition beginning in 2025. By 2030, every Victorian four-year-old will be entitled to a free, 30-hour-a-week program.

Most existing kindergarten programs in Victoria are offered for 15 hours, and while the state government subsidises it for all children, it is only free or low-cost for some underprivileged groups.

From next year, existing kindergarten services will be made free.

I’m from NSW, where kindergarten is part of school

That’s right, the naming system is different in each state. In NSW we’re talking about changes to what is known as preschool. While that term applies to the education of children three to five years old, the new investment mostly applies to the year immediately before primary school. The government is going to refer to this one year as “pre-kindergarten”, but that’s not an official term yet. It’s the same play-based education as preschool, but access is being widened from 15 to 30 hours for that one year, and will eventually be made free.

The government has committed to making pre-kindergarten free by 2030 but has not provided a timeline for when that will occur.

From next year, all NSW families will be eligible for up to $4,000 a year in fee relief for three-to five-year-olds attending a community or mobile preschool; up to $2,000 a year for four- and five-year-olds attending preschool in a long-daycare setting; and the equivalent of five days a fortnight of affordable preschool fee relief for all children in Department of Education preschools.

My child is only three, anything for them?

Yes. In Victoria, all three-year-olds have access to at least five hours of government-funded kinder each week. This will be scaled up to 15 hours by 2029.

Existing three-year-old kinder will become free from next year.

The NSW government will invest $64.1m for a two-year pilot to support more three-year-olds attending preschool in long-daycare services.

What will this extra year of education look like?

So far, we know it will be five days a week, in various settings, including existing preschools (NSW) and kindergartens (Victoria), long-daycare settings and in some school settings.

Rachael Hedger, an early childhood degree coordinator and lecturer at Flinders University, said it will be play-based learning and not structured classes like in school.

“There should be opportunities for free play, for them to make choices about what they’d like to engage in within a very open, inviting environment for them,” she said.

“There’s opportunities for educators to integrate guided teaching within play, but there are also opportunities for extended periods of free play … for developing their social, emotional and physical development.”

What about childcare services?

Both governments have this week announced new childcare funding.

NSW will spend $775m over the next four years to drive down childcare costs and increase the number of places by encouraging centres to expand into “childcare deserts”, such as western Sydney.

Victoria will establish 50 government-run childcare centres in areas with the greatest unmet demand.

What are the challenges?

“The issue will be just making sure that there are those spaces available for the children and the infrastructure that we can provide in that space as well,” said Hedger. “If we’re doubling the amount of spaces for children then we’re really having to double the infrastructure, the buildings and the educators.”

At seperate press conferences on Thursday, both premiers acknowledged it would be difficult to find enough staff amid Australia’s worker shortage and would look at incentives.

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Victoria’s early education minister, Ingrid Stitt, said the state government was already in the process of recruiting 6,000 early childhood educators, with an additional 5,000 workers needed to staff the additional pre-prep hours.

“I’m not pretending for a minute that it won’t come with challenges in terms of finding that workforce in a very tight labor market,” Stitt said. “But we will do that work with the sector and we will come up with incentives to make sure that we attract and retain our amazing workforce.”

Why are they doing it?

Andrews and Perrottet said there were several reasons, the most important being it will set children up for school and give them the best start for life. At the same time, it will benefit hundreds of working families, they said.

NSW will spend $775m over the next four years in a bid to make child care more accessible and affordable. Photograph: Jeremy Piper/AAP

Andrews said under the current system, many parents ended up working an extra day a week to be able to afford childcare.

“You’re not so much working for your family, as you’re working for the Australian Tax Office,” he said.

Andrews said there are about 27,000 women in the state who aren’t working because they can’t afford childcare.

The changes will also help relieve financial pressure on households amid the rising cost of living.

According to research from the Grattan Institute, full-time net childcare costs are nearly 20% of the household income for the typical Australian family – higher than the average of about 10% for OECD nations.

What has been the reaction?

Largely positive.

Campaign group Thrive By Five, who Andrews credited with being instrumental in developing the policy, described the announcement as “life changing for children, women and families”.

The Australia Education Union welcomed the reform and urged other states and territories to follow suit.

“These plans will go a long way towards bringing Australia in line with our international counterparts, most of whom have been offering at least two years of high quality preschool programs in the years before school for a significant period of time,” the federal president, Correna Haythorpe, said.

With a joint announcement from the Victorian and NSW premiers, we may need some synergy of early education terms, Hedger said.

“We refer to children in year one is being in year one, in year seven as being year in year seven and everyone knows what that means across the whole of the country. Then it very, very clearly aligns with curriculum documentation as well.

“We do need some kind of alignment with the terms that we’re using in this space.”