5 January 2024

Will 2024 spell death by paperwork for Canberra's early learning centres?

| James Coleman
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Lyons Early Learning Centre artwork

More than 5000 three-year-olds are thought to be eligible for the free preschool program. Photo: Woden Community Service (WCS).

Canberra’s preschools and early learning centres (ELCs) will have their work cut out for them in 2024 after the ACT Government launched a new pilot program to provide parents of three-year-olds with 300 hours of free care per year.

Provided the child attends one of more than 140 partnering preschools and ELCs across Canberra, families will receive a government subsidy for six hours per week, equating to an average saving of $1329 per child per year.

The program, which officially commenced on 1 January, is heralded as the government’s biggest investment in the early childhood sector.

“Children who participate in quality early learning programs are more likely to make a successful transition to school, stay longer in school, continue to further education and fully participate in employment and community life as adults,” Minister for Education and Youth Affairs Yvette Berry said.

“I look forward to seeing three-year-olds across Canberra making the most of their preschool experience in 2024.”

The government estimates more than 5000 three-year-olds across the city are eligible, so will Canberra’s preschools and ELCs be swamped? Yes, but probably not from new enrolments (at least to start with).

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Woden Community Services (WCS), which operates the Lyons Early Learning Centre and Evatt School Preschool, said most of the enquiries they’ve received so far have come from existing customers wondering how the program works.

“Once we’re full, we’re full,” Child Youth and Family Services manager Vivienne Gould says.

“If we have a spot open up and the new enrollee meets the criteria, they’ll be eligible too, but it’s not like a whole lot of new spots have opened up.”

Residents of the ACT with children who turn three before the end of April 2024 – regardless of income – are eligible, except for certain visa holders.

Not all ACT preschools and ELCs have signed up, though. The program must be overseen by a teacher with childhood education qualifications – rather than the more common diploma – and not every service has those people on staff.

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As it stands, most of the paperwork for the subsidy has been lumped on the staff at the respective preschool or ELC, too, so Vivienne hopes a more efficient way can be found over the course of the one-year pilot.

“It’s going to be very labour-intensive for the services because families will still get their childcare benefit and then we give them a credit for the gap between that and what we charge, and for every family that’s different,” she says.

“It’s a very manual process, and there must be a better way to do it.”

playing with leaves

WCS isn’t expecting a massive influx of new families in 2024. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

The 2023/24 ACT Budget dedicated more than $50 million over the next four years towards improving access to early learning services.

The government has said it “aims to provide 15 hours per week, 600 hours per year of free, universal quality early childhood education for all three-year-old children in the ACT”.

The first step was providing two free days per week to three-year-olds “most in need – those experiencing disadvantage and vulnerability”.

Up to 500 places were made available for priority children, and more places were made available for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander three-year-olds across all five Koori Preschools.

A full list of partnering services for the new free preschool program can be found on the ACT Government website.

Original Article published by James Coleman on Riotact.

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