2 November 2023

More than 100 Canberra centres sign up to offer a fee-free day of preschool for three-year-olds

| Claire Fenwicke
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preschooler's playing

Three-year-olds across Canberra, such as Alfie and Finn, will be able to attend preschool for free one day a week under the changes. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

Children who turn three before the end of April 2024 will be able to access one free day of preschool each week at one of 130 early childhood centres across the Territory.

The ACT Government has announced that 70 providers, which operate 130 centres in Canberra, have signed up to the scheme, providing about $1329 in savings for families each year.

Education and Youth Affairs Minister Yvette Berry outlined that 700 families that may not have previously been able to access preschool had already been assisted to enter the program, with the fee-free day now opened up to about 5000 more Canberra families.

“The expansion of the free day of preschool for three-year-olds is an important commitment for ACT Labor … one that builds on many, many years of investment in early childhood education and one that also delivers a significant cost saving to families with young children,” she said.

“It’s a significant benefit to the families in regards to saving money, particularly during a difficult time in the ACT where people are struggling with financial commitments like early childhood education, but importantly it provides young people with the best start in a preschool education.”

Yvette Berry and Andrew Barr

Education Minister Yvette Berry and Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced the fee-free preschool, which has $50 million in funding over four years. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

There are about 160 centres in Canberra, and while all were approached to join the scheme, only 130 were deemed eligible.

“Usually [they were ineligible because] they didn’t meet the quality standards within the National Quality Framework,” Ms Berry said.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not great centres; they’re just not quite where we need them to be. They might not have a program in place for preschool education, they might not have a qualified teacher, so they need to phase that work in.”

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Ms Berry said the government would work with these remaining centres to get them up to scratch so they can participate in the scheme.

Parents and carers with children already enrolled at a preschool or early childhood education centre can contact their provider to ask about the program and access the saving or find out if their centre is participating through the Education Directorate.

The announcement coincided with the ACT Government introducing a bill to amend the Education Act 2004 to recognise the importance of quality early childhood education in the two years before primary school.

It will make the Territory the first Australian jurisdiction to recognise in law that children start learning from birth.

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The Education (Early Childhood) Legislation Amendment Bill 2023 also amends the ACT Teacher Quality Institute Act 2010 to register early childhood teachers as professionals.

Currently, the Teacher Quality Institute regulates the professional registration of teachers in the ACT’s primary and secondary schools.

“Formally recognising early childhood education in law and providing professional recognition for early childhood teachers will strengthen the sector,” Ms Berry said.

“[These] are significant, symbolic changes to our legislation in the ACT that recognises early childhood education … it’s about recognising educators wherever they teach.”

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What bothers me most about this program is that what was originally announced as a three-year-old preschool program for all three-year-olds has turned into a childcare subsidy for those fortunate enough to be enrolled in a participating child care centre. The ACT Government has acknowledged the potential benefits of a preschool program for three-year-olds but has excluded those most likely to benefit from it. I am concerned that instead of improving educational outcomes it creates an even greater disparity between children.

How is it excluding those ‘most likely to benefit from it’? 130 of 160 centres are eligible

Only children already enrolled in those child care centres are eligible. Children who are cared for at home or at non-registered child care centres are not eligible. Some vulnerable children are catered for by the program set up within the government system a few years ago, but that does not cover all children who would benefit. The system is inequitable.

Free three year old preschooling sounds like a great idea, until one learns that the child care centres, who will provide it are notifying working mothers that they are reducing care for their children. Of course providing preschool hours is an easier gig than long day care provision, but taking child care away from working parents is unconscionable. Whether it’s an unintended consequence or just pure stupidity this scheme undermines the tax payer subsidised, essential care for working parents. Bad form Yvette Berry. If you are genuine about providing three year old preschooling expand the ACT preschool system. Oh, did someone say election next year!

Which centres are doing that? Nothing will change at my centre. The program info says that parents will continue to pay the usual rate for any additional hours or days attended.

Not willing to name in public forum but have seen the letters. Also advised subject of concern discussed on Facebook mothers forum.

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