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Federal government must provide preschool funding certainty

At the end of January 2017, more than 320,000 children will have their first day at kindergarten.

Over the course of the year, early childhood teachers and educators will use their expertise and knowledge to build those children’s social, emotional, literacy and numeracy skills, their critical and creative thinking, their perseverance, sociability and self esteem.

These children will directly benefit from the Universal Access funding agreement, which sees 15 hours of kindergarten per week provided at low cost to families for children in the year before school.

But the class of 2017 may be the last to enjoy this support.

Under the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education, Victoria pays for more than two-thirds of government funding of 15 hours of kindergarten in the year before school, with the federal government contributing the rest.

The Universal Access funding arrangement is now looking increasingly shaky. The current agreement is set to run out at the end of 2017, and there’s been no sign from the federal government that they will end the uncertainty and commit to ongoing funding for 15 hours once and for all.

Rather, the Turnbull Government is suggesting it is backing away from the agreement altogether, with federal minister for education Simon Birmingham indicating that the federal government’s share of funding has only been a “top-up” contribution to lift kindergarten participation levels over the short term.

This is selling families short. Far from being a stopgap measure, federal funding is integral to delivering more hours at kindergarten to more children.

This is not the first time we have seen this sort of equivocation from the federal government on the Universal Access Agreement. This is the fourth consecutive short-term arrangement.

Having to regularly face this insecurity and worry takes a toll on both services and families.

This uncertainty affects planning for budgets, staffing and most importantly how early education is delivered to children during what is an optimal time for them to learn. It also affects how well families can prepare for the coming year, and the childcare and working arrangements they have to make well in advance.

Most importantly, though, is the potential impact this will have on children.

We know the difference that 15 hours of kindergarten makes to a child in the year before school.

Fifteen hours of kindergarten supports children’s development and improves school readiness, as found by the Productivity Commission in 2015.

Research also clearly links kindergarten participation with better school performance, and improved job prospects and higher wages on entering the workforce.

The federal Liberal’s share of funding is critical in delivering the 15 hours of quality early learning that has real, lasting and positive effects on children at school and in later life. It represents a shared commitment across Australian governments to investment in early education, and to the social and economic benefits that follow.

In 2017, every single one of Victoria’s 2300 funded kindergartens will be providing children with 15 hours of quality, teacher-led preschool education in the vital year before school, showing how in demand this additional support is.

Families deserve better.

Kindergartens and the talented, dedicated people who run them deserve better.

The Andrews Labor Government is calling on Malcolm Turnbull to end this cycle of equivocation and commit once and for all to ongoing funding for 15 hours of kindergarten for children in the year before school.

Jenny Mikakos is Victoria’s minister for families and children.

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