Thousands of children starting preschool in NSW this week will be charged fees of up to $40 a day for the first time at government-run preschools.
Last year, Premier Barry O’Farrell’s government introduced fees without consultation for the 100 preschools run by the Department of Education and Community Services (DEC). Most are attached to public schools.
Many parents had already accepted a preschool place for 2012, or even enrolled their child, before learning that the previously free classes would attract daily fees.
Most other state and territory governments provide most preschool services for free. In Western Australia, preschool programs are available without charge at more than 95% of public primary schools. Just 6% of NSW public primary schools have preschool programs.
Compared to other states, NSW has a low rate of preschool participation due to prohibitive fees for many preschool programs.
The NSW government subsidises community-run preschools, but parents must pay fees to make up the funding shortfall. Many private day-care centres also offer preschool programs, but fees are often $80 or more a day.
The provision of DEC preschools is supposed to address the lack of access for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, including Aboriginal children. Yet incredibly, the NSW government says imposing preschool fees is meant to ensure greater “equality” within the early education sector.
Liberal member for Albury Greg Aplin told the January 9 Border Mail: “There has been discrimination where those who have been attending public preschools have been receiving a free education.”
The fees will range from $0-$40 a day depending on each school’s Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) rating. The ICSEA is a dubious system that the federal government claims allows the comparison of schools with similar statistics.
However the index is based on limited Australian Bureau of Statistics data from a couple of hundred households in the local area, not on data from the school population itself. Factors such as the proportion of students from non-English speaking backgrounds are ignored.
Fee relief is available for Aboriginal families, and health care cardholders will pay 50% of the new fee. Depending on where they live this may add up to anywhere between $1 and $20 a day. At the school’s discretion, students can be exempted from the fees, but parents must prove extreme financial hardship.
A report in the NSW Teachers’ Federation’s (NSWTF) November 14 Education journal said parents who don’t want to beg for fee discounts are choosing to keep their kids home or enrolling them in school a year early.
Teachers have also reported that the new system is fuelling racism, with some parents questioning why fee relief is available to certain families and not others.
Rather than providing free, quality preschool education for all children, imposing a fee-based system with limited concessions and exemptions for the most disadvantaged families serves to stigmatise these families and reinforce inequalities.
Gadigal woman Julie Morgan, the NSWTF’s Relieving Aboriginal Education Coordinator, told NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli at a November 9 parliamentary forum: “Do not talk of special cases or exemptions, we are sick of being singled out.”
Neither the Child Care Benefit nor the Child Care Rebate — federal government subsidies — are available to parents to offset the new fees. The government preschools generally operate from 9am-3pm, which means many working families must pay additional fees for before and after school care.
Privately owned long day-care centres with exorbitant fees could actually be cheaper for some families, as they usually operate from 7am to 6pm and 50% of the fees are returned via the Child Care Rebate.
In the past, government preschools collected voluntary contributions from parents to help cover the costs of basic materials in the absence of adequate public funding. Parents will no longer make these contributions, yet the schools will not receive any part of the new fees. The administrative burden on schools will be substantially increased as they are forced to collect the fees and pass them on to the government.
Meanwhile, the January 10 Sydney Morning Herald said many of the NSW government’s top bureaucrats are receiving annual salaries of more than half a million dollars each.
Australia has one of the lowest spending rates on preschool education among OECD countries, at less than 0.1% of GDP. O’Farrell has promised to raise preschool participation in NSW to 95% before July 2013. The new fees are likely to have the opposite effect.
[For information on the NSWTF campaign to abolish the fees, visit the website