States and territories act on preschool funding, after Federal Government turns its back on agreements

Yesterday, the ACT Government announced that it would be setting a goal of providing universal access to preschool for three-year-old Canberran children. It stopped just a little short of being a full announcement (we don’t have funding or rollout details yet), but it’s a telling sign that States and Territories are acting on this issue without the Federal Government.

The announcement is of course a welcome one, and follows commitments from NSW on three-year-old preschool – although NSW’s complicated funding model raises many questions about how equitable that funding will be. Tasmania will also be extending access to three-year olds.

Although the devil is of course always in the detail, in general these announcements are positive for the sector – and for children. Professors Deb Brennan and Sue Pascoe discussed their recent Lifting Our Game Report with all the States and Territories at a Council of Australian Governments, and its clear that their message around the benefits of extending universal access was heard by at least a few of the politicians in the room. A recent survey showing overwhelming public support for the policy probably helped as well.

But there is an unfortunate downside to these announcements. They mark the end of nearly a decade of cooperation between the Federal, State and Territory Governments on provision of early childhood education – and the breakdown entirely sits with the current Federal Government.

Upon coming into office in 2013, the key National Agreement for four-year-old universal access has been put at risk every year, threatened, given short-term funding extensions, and always left to the very last minute to confirm. The results of that partnership speak for themselves. According to Professors Brennan and Pascoe, “the proportion of children enrolled in 600 hours of preschool has increased significantly, from 12 per cent in 2008 to 91 per cent in 2015.”

The Government’s hostility to chipping in money for early education was confirmed when they announced the end of their funding for the National Quality Agenda, leaving States and Territories to foot the rest of the bill.

The ACT, NSW and Tasmania have clearly determined that the Federal Government won’t be pulling out the checkbook for three-year-old preschool. It’s great that they’re going it alone, but it’s frustrating that they have to.

National Partnership Agreements are important, as they ensure a national and combined approach to important programs – and it’s hard to think of anything more important than high-quality early education. Governments come and go, but these kinds of arrangements can continue on. We’re a small nation, but the complex interactions between States, Territories and Federal Governments creates all sorts of ridiculous frustrations. Look at the different approaches to school starting ages. National agreements don’t fix all those problems, but at least they set a benchmark.

The Federal Government will no doubt be delighted that the States and Territories are going where they have no interest in going. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that they’d be looking at the current funding for four-year-old access and saying “well, if they can fund three-year-olds…”.

It’s great that there is policy movement on three-year-old preschool, and all the States and Territories involved should be congratulated. But the pressure must remain on the Federal Government to ensure this is a national approach.

Let’s hope that the ACT, NSW and Tasmania can convince their colleagues in other Governments to get back around the table and back to national agreements. As a Canberran, my children should be no more entitled to early childhood education than a child from the Northern Territory, or South Australia, or anywhere else.

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