The public supports three-year-old preschool. What next?

A national survey conducted by Essential Research has shown overwhelming national support for current preschool arrangements for four-year-olds to be extended to three-year olds. Does this mean that it might happen in the next few years?

At the moment, neither of the major political parties (the Liberal/National Coalition and Australian Labor) have a confirmed policy commitment to extending the current funding to ensure children can access two years of preschool. Until this changes, it’s not very likely that we’ll be seeing three-year-olds getting 15 hours free (or low cost) access to early childhood every week.

Given there’s no current policy statements in black and white we can look to, we need to take a look at what people have said about the proposal – and do a little bit of gazing into the crystal-ball.

The Coalition are currently in Government, and in the past Education Minister Simon Birmingham has spoken somewhat positively about three-year-old preschool access.

“I’ve been speaking publicly about extending preschool to three year olds for nearly a year. It’s a complex issue in terms of what settings it should be delivered in and for what hours as well as how it is funded,” he said.

“Nonetheless we are looking at international models and will engage with state leaders who have a prime responsibility in the delivery and funding of any preschool expansion.” (ABC News)

But this hasn’t translated into action. In fact, the Federal Government hasn’t even embedded funding arrangements for four-year-olds to access preschool. Since they came into Government in 2013, they have only approved 1-2 year continuations of the funding, with the sector (and families) faced with ongoing uncertainty.

The Government has also pulled out of funding the agreement for the National Quality Agenda. In doing so, Minister Birmingham made it clear that he viewed early education funding as largely being a responsibility for the States and Territories.

Based on all that, it would be a brave person who would suggest that the current Government is likely to announce federal funding for three-year-old preschool access.

So what about the Labor Party? If they win the next election, would free (or low-cost) access for three-year-olds become a reality?

Somewhat frustratingly, Labor have talked about it – but made no commitments. The previous Shadow Minister for Early Education raised the issue in a big way back in October 2016.

The evidence is now overwhelming that three year old children need access to preschool and it’s time the Government looked at the barriers to addressing this. (Kate Ellis, National Press Club Address)

Since that time, we’ve had no firm commitment from Labor on this issue. As they are in Opposition, it’s unlikely we’d seen any such commitment until the next election – if at all.

Kate Ellis was right to point out that the evidence is now overwhelming. That was even before earlier this year, with the in-depth Lifting Our Game Report made extending preschool funding one of its key recommendations.

The evidence is clear. The public are on side to an extent that must make advocates for other issues cry – 77% agree with extending preschool funding to three-year-olds. So why can’t politicians make a move?

There’s no simple answer, but some of it comes down to how complex Australia’s ECEC system has become. Government-funded preschools sitting alongside privately-operated services for children aged 0-5. Some preschools free of charge, some with fees that are still too high despite direct funding (hello, NSW!).

But just because it’s complex doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. The NQF applies to preschools as well as the birth-five services, meaning they all operate under the same regulatory system.

It’s important to also remember that NQF requirements mean that there are more Early Childhood Teachers in ECEC services for children from birth to five years old. There are ways to achieve this goal in the short-term, while still prioritising long-term structural reform of the entire sector.

With an election less than 12 months away, it’s time to put pressure on all political parties to catch up with the rest of the world and do this.

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