A NEW year has begun for the region’s preschools, but there’s nothing new where the sector’s funding fight is concerned.
In December last year The Leader spoke with the directors of Tamworth’s Montessori Preschool and Manilla Preschool about the building frustration with the NSW government over rising preschool fees and the difference between states.
In the past few months the sector has been ramping up its campaign and is at the point where protest action seems inevitable.
Gabrielle Connell, director of Albury Preschool and the Early Childhood Services representative for the Independent Education Union, told The Leader NSW community-based preschools were embarking on a major campaign this year to highlight their plight, including approaches to media and local members of parliament, making new preschool families aware of the situation and the initiation of a Facebook page titled Fund NSW Preschools Now.
Protests could be the next step, she said.
“We are in crisis,” she said.
“We’ve been making this point for years ... but the NSW government remains silent.”
Ms Connell, who lays the blame at the feet of both major parties, said there’d been a virtual funding freeze for the past 23 years in NSW with no increase in state funding for preschools in 2013.
This funding failed to cover wages and running costs, she said, forcing fees up to as much as $55 a day in metropolitan areas this year and putting preschool out of reach financially for some families.
NSW preschools are the most expensive on average in Australia with other states providing the service at a minimal cost – Victoria is about a third of the NSW average – or even free of charge.
Ms Connell said NSW children were missing out as a result, with an increasing number of children starting school without any early childhood education experience.
“It’s becoming something only the wealthy can afford,” she said.
“There’s so much research to say the years from zero to five are the most important learning time ... and children who have this (early childhood) experience go on to do better in school.
“The ones who are missing out are often the ones who need it the most. It’s pretty desperate.”
Werris Creek Preschool director Julia Cameron and Quirindi Preschool director Alison Thompson face the cold, hard reality of NSW’s funding anomaly every day.
They know how hard it is to balance the books while still providing a top-rate service for their students and parents.
Ms Cameron said she described the situation to parents “as running a business for more than 20 years with the same amount of capital”.
“You can’t do it,” she said.
“Not when all these other costs, like electricity, continue to go up.”
Her preschool, she said, was fortunate to have a top rate of $18, but fees had gone up this year for the first time in five years.
“We’re very conscious of the fact we’re in an area with a whole gamut of income levels,” she said.
Ms Thompson is in the same boat and said the decision to raise Quirindi Preschool’s top rate of $26 to $28 had only come after a lot of agonising.
Both women said the fees didn’t cover everything and annual fundraising by parents and their local communities was vital, helping meet the costs of building improvements, maintenance, new equipment and even workplace safety requirements.
“We’re relying on the goodwill of people all the time,” Ms Thompson said.
It was likely fees would have to go up again next year, she said, and she knows this will have an impact.
“We will lose families and it’s frustrating ... because we’re here for the whole community, not just a part of it.”
Ms Cameron describes NSW’s early childhood funding set-up as “archaic” and accepts protest action may be inevitable.
“It’s not something that comes naturally to us as early childhood educators,” she said.
“But nobody’s been listening and they haven’t been listening for a very long time.”