The expansion of early childhood education in Australia to allow access to a structured and play-based early learning program to all children in the year before they enter school is meant to be a universal access policy. In 2009, the Australian Government finally got involved in early childhood education, which was previously the responsibility of states. It responded to international policy comparisons and research evidence about the economic benefits of early education for later life outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged children. One commitment the government made was a non-compulsory opportunity for every child in the year before they enter school to attend a 15 hours per week (or later 600 hours per year) quality learning program. This commitment presented Australia with an enormous task, although it seems comparably small to other countries, such as Finland, where all children have a subjective right to full-time early childhood education should their parents so decide and a pre-primary education program is compulsory for all 6-year-olds before they go to school.
The policy expansion was welcomed by the Australian professional community. The fulfilment of every child’s right to quality early childhood education, a hope the sector held for a long time, felt closer. Due to previous investments, some states achieved universal access relatively easier by the set target date of 2013. In NSW the task of providing the number of hours required and enrolling the targeted children collided with existing program structures and financing of preschools. Being responsible for all costs including staff salaries, covered mainly by fees collected from families, preschools’ and long day care settings’ financial viability depends on filling all available places. Universal access meant changing program structures (that might not fit with families’ schedules and needs) and prioritizing the enrolment of those children who attract subsidies from the Australian Government (4-year-olds and 3-year-olds coming from disadvantaged backgrounds). Other children’s enrolment, such as 3year-olds (from non-disadvantaged backgrounds) ceased to attract state subsidies, thus their families became full-fee payers. Questions began to arise: Where should those ‘subsidized’ children come from when early education is recognised mostly as care for working mothers’ children?; what to do when families already have accommodated their working hours around the operating hours in the context of a general shortage of places?; and how to attract families when woman often give up work due to salaries earned that are equal to child care costs?
Initially, the state government laid out its strategy to reach universal access mostly in financial terms. It offered subsidies to the enrolment of targeted children, so services enrolling them could make great differences in their budget balances. Some services (those that better understood the shifting and complicated changes required and had the financial skills to respond) more intentionally restructured provisions and enrolments to follow state policy initiatives. With these changes they hoped to increase their own viability, the security of work arrangements for staff, and to expand the number of available places. They were also worried that this extra funding will soon disappear since funding for the sector is in continuous ebb and flow, therefore sought to benefit as long as they could from it. Some directors also realised that this boost in funding makes early education accessible for those who benefit the most from it: disadvantaged children. Despite these laudable reasons and when calculations were made on the budget sheets, the situation looked less equitable and desirable. It seemed that the most beneficial budget for all concerned could only be reached through the denial of access for three-year-olds. This result, however, directly contradicts with the sector’s quest for quality early education for all. The ad-hoc enactment of federal initiatives by state agents, and their reactive rather than visionary policy-making, has worked against the very goal they set to themselves: universal access, in the general meaning of children’s rights to early education.
Hasty policy initiatives for universal access have dramatically shaped services’ everyday decision making. In the process, ethical dilemmas arose in a context where numbers – subsidies, budget sheets, balances – became important considerations. Addressing universal access through budgets put directors, perhaps unknown to them, in a more powerful position in policy making. By implementing state initiatives, they trialled possible ways of achieving universal access and kept the state bureaucracy informed about best solutions, that the state in turn followed. Thus, directors became policy formers, instead of being only adaptors.
Through the implementation of universal access, the state government acted with cynicism and lack of real commitment and vision, only to be seen that they were doing something. However, in this context, preschools have gained some unprecedented powers. In the spaces opened, their activism and lobbying for the right to young children’s quality early education can continue to strengthen. For example, with the launch of the new online reporting system, after hours can be reported, especially those weekend hours that filling out the universal access forms occupy. While the bureaucracy might respond that these are invalid numbers, if the sector keeps inputting them, the government might start to recognise them. Also working hours of sessional staff required to replace permanent staff members while they are engaged in professional development need to be inputted. These hours have to be seen by the government, since they must know what it costs to run a quality service. If the sector does not want to run services as the government runs its policy, the sector must now include these hours in budgets and let the government know.
The stories about the implementation of universal access in a NSW preschool is accessible through this link: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/3pcMvPYnZSRFxZmIMRu4/full
Our article intends to provoke further discussion, challenge settled processes, and illuminate ethical impasses so that international readers might also recognise similarities and synergies related to their own educational contexts. It also prompts Australian early childhood educators to act in this changed policy environment.
Zsuzsa Millei is a Senior Research Fellow at the IASR University of Tampere working on rethinking education theory and practice. See in detail: https://www.newcastle.edu.au/profile/zsuzsanna-millei
Jannelle Gallagher is associated with Kurri Kurri Preschool, NSW, Australia.