Now is the critical time to press for the permanency, once and for all, of 15 hours’ preschool a week for four-year-olds.
BY NIC BARNARD
For the third time in four years, early educators are campaigning to make 15 hours a week of preschool a permanent, ongoing entitlement for every four-year-old.
The evidence is long in, and educators in kindergartens, long day care and primary schools can see the proof in the children they teach every day: 15 hours makes a difference to their charges’ confidence, relationships, development and readiness to learn when they start primary.
However, the federal funding that since 2013 has made ‘universal access’ possible will run out – again – at the end of 2017.
This time, AEU members are saying they can’t settle for more piecemeal solutions, with the continuing uncertainty of another 18-month or two-year extension. This time, ongoing funding is needed to protect preschools.
Without it, the fear is that cash-poor states and territories will drop back to the 10 or 12 hours’ provision they offered before they and then-education minister Julia Gillard signed the National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education and Care.
Next year’s children could lose as much as a third of their preschool time.
“Five hours doesn’t sound like much to an adult. But in a little life, it is,” says Victorian preschool teacher Kay Bryan. “For some of them [preschool] is the only time when they are speaking English or dealing with other children and getting to understand that ebb and flow of conflict and negotiation and sharing.”
Continued impact Bryan’s concerns are supported by research. Dr Stacey Fox, policy fellow at the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University, says the impact of a year of preschool continues throughout primary and secondary school.
Its immediate effect is demonstrated by the Australian Early Development Census, which assesses children about six months into their primary schooling against five domains: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge.
Nearly a quarter of children (22 per cent) will be developmentally vulnerable in at least one domain. “These are children who are right down at the bottom of their cohort, children who are significantly struggling,” says Fox.
For children who receive at least one year of preschool, the risk of registering as developmentally vulnerable falls by at least a quarter.
“Preschool benefits children from low socioeconomic status backgrounds the most. But it also has an impact on kids throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. It’s a bit of a wonder drug that way.”
However, for preschool to have a sustained effect, children need at least 15 hours a week for at least a year, preferably two, she says.
“Fifteen hours appears, from the international studies, to be the minimum for those impacts to be sustained in the long term.”
The reason for this lies in the building of relationships with adults and other children, which takes time for a four-year-old in a new and complex world. It also gives teachers more time to assess each child’s needs and interests, adapt their curriculum to suit, and access any support they need.