Sean Mooney reports on the introduction of charges for government-run preschools.
Parents and carers of thousands of children attending NSW Government-run preschools are now being charged fees of up to $40 a day for a service that was previously free. The decision to introduce fees at the 100 preschools was announced by Education Minister Adrian Piccoli last November, prompting a delegation of principals, teachers and parents to NSW Parliament House protesting the move. The delegation raised concerns that charging fees might reduce the ability of disadvantaged families to access early-childhood education, and that enrolments at these preschools could fall.
The preschools, most of which are attached to public schools, were established to provide early-childhood education for children in low socio-economic circumstances. This has traditionally focused on students with Indigenous or refugee backgrounds and those with disabilities.
Educators will have a clearer idea of how student enrolments have been affected when final figures for the 2012 school year are confirmed. However, chairperson of the advocacy group Public Schools Principals Forum and Canley Vale Public School principal Cheryl McBride says enrolments tell only part of the story. "The issue at our school and at most of the [government] preschools, is that they are very desirable places to enrol your child because of the lack of expense, the quality of the program and the fact that you have qualified teachers delivering an established curriculum. Even in the most challenging of areas, often you'll find that the [government] preschools have waiting lists. So you're not necessarily going to see a change in enrolment numbers, but what you are going to see is a change in the nature of the families enrolling their children. What we've found is that there are more affluent families on our waiting list now, whereas the kind of children we're really trying to attract – those from the most challenged and least-educated backgrounds – come from families that may baulk at paying the additional fees."
NSW Primary Principals Association (NSWPPA) president and Albion Park Public School principal Jim Cooper agrees enrolments aren't the real issue. "The NSWPPA has always been opposed to fees for preschools because we believe it should be a free public service," he says. "Preschools were set up in public schools for the families that couldn't actually afford to go to private [or community] preschools, and we would be quite happy to have even more established in primary schools. We have to make sure that sort of service is available to every child regardless of their financial situation."
Minister Piccoli told the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) late last year that while the preschools were originally established to provide early-childhood education for disadvantaged children, "changing demographics and other factors mean enrolment patterns have not always reflected this in recent years". Hence the creation of a fee structure based on the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA), which was devised to represent, numerically, the average level of educational advantage or disadvantage of a school's student population. Piccoli said 78 of the preschools would have fee relief of up to $10 per child a day, and would be free for the "most disadvantaged families". "Six of the preschools will have no fees at all," he said. "Twenty-seven will have fees of less than $5 per child per day, and for Aboriginal families the minimum fee will be zero; the maximum will be $20 per day."
He said the issue needed to be put into "context". "We are talking about 100 preschools," he said. "Children in government preschools are only 1.6 per cent of children in early-childhood education and care in NSW. Almost all parents pay fees for their children to attend early-childhood education and care, and the new fee structure is broadly in line with fees charged in community-based preschools."
Recently Piccoli said the government wanted to ensure the most disadvantaged families could access preschool, however, "Parents who can afford to pay for preschool classes should do so".
Emeritus professor at the University of NSW and University of Sydney Tony Vinson says, "Concern about so-called equity of charges is one of the most foolish pieces of social thinking I've come across in a long career". Professor Vinson chaired an inquiry into public education in NSW 10 years ago that recommended, among other things, that the number of free State-run preschools with an 'outreach' program be increased. "To block further the access to preschooling in disadvantaged areas by charging fees is to continue to exclude the very people who need it most, and who in its absence are going to finish up having frustrating, difficult lives and be a further charge upon society," he says.
Another issue raised by educationalists is the impact fees will have on financial contributions from parents. In the past, government preschools collected voluntary parental payments to help cover shortfalls in public funding for basic materials. Says Jim Cooper, "Some preschools will probably still ask for parental donations, but my guess is that most parents will say, 'I'm already paying a fee, why would I pay a second fee?' And you can't argue with that."
The NSWTF has been campaigning against fees, saying public education must be free and accessible to all, that the new fees will impose a huge additional administrative workload on schools, and that they will "leave principals open to complaints about the level of fees charged and/or exemptions provided".
Minister Piccoli has said NSW lags behind other States and Territories in participation rates and affordability in preschools. However, the NSWTF claims charging fees will exacerbate this situation. The NSWTF's Aboriginal Education Coordinator Charline Emzin-Boyd says, "All students need equal opportunity for quality education through our public schools, and it's quite disappointing that the minister is going down this path in just 100 preschools." Her NSWTF colleague Julie Morgan warned the government against treating Indigenous families as "special cases or exemptions". "We are sick of being singled out," says Morgan. Emzin-Boyd says fee reductions or exemptions are not helpful, as "targeting individuals and isolating Aboriginal kids has a really negative effect". "We should be making sure the opportunities are there for every one of our kids, while acknowledging that we still have a long way to go regarding Aboriginal education. Instead we have families being told 'now we want you to pay for this, so we don't actually want your kids at school, we don't want those kids to be ready', and we put them behind the eight ball again."
The Federal Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Peter Garrett, says he is concerned the NSW Government's policy to introduce fees may impact on access for children in families who are disadvantaged. "Minister Piccoli has advised that the new fee policy means disadvantaged families will receive fee relief, and that principals are also able to waive fees where a child would otherwise be unable to attend. I am continuing to monitor the impact of the introduction of fees on participation at preschool."
Emzin-Boyd says she has already seen the negative effects of the policy on the ground. "I spoke to a principal recently, and they used to have a great rapport with parents. Now the vibe from the community is that people won't be able to send their kids. All of a sudden, the fees come out of the preschools, but don't actually go back to them. Are we putting the money we're collecting into our jails? For me, that's the end result, because if we don't give every single one of our children the opportunity for the best quality education, where does that leave us?"
Pictured: Canley Vale Public School Preschool.
This article was first published in the March 2012 edition of Sydney's Child.