In an interim report delivered to the Governor and publicly released this morning, Royal Commissioner and former prime minister Julia Gillard made an “in-principle” recommendation to the state government for three-year-old preschool to be delivered at government and non-government early childhood centres .
Gillard found that South Australia could start rolling out three-year-old preschool from 2026 ahead of a full implementation by 2032.
She found the state government would need to chip in an estimated initial $162.7 million each year to expand preschool to three-year-olds, with that cost rising to $212.2 million by the time the policy is fully implemented by 2023.
The state government would need to spend an estimated additional $101.2 – $111.2 million to build the equivalent of 32 new early childhood education and care services to cater for increased demand.
It would also need to make use of around 4700 empty places in government preschools.
“This report identifies a major opportunity for the state of South Australia,” Gillard told reporters this morning.
“I believe that South Australia can lead on early childhood education and care.”
The $2.4 million royal commission was a major election commitment of the Malinauskas Government and was established in October to examine how South Australia could deliver universal preschool to three-year-olds.
So far it has heard from 26 witnesses and received about 900 pages of submissions, with the commission due to hand down a final report to the state government in August.
Premier Peter Malinauskas has previously described the policy to expand preschool to three-year-olds as the “biggest reform to early childhood education our state has ever seen”, saying it would improve children’s start in life and better support working families.
Currently, children can receive 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year of government-subsidised preschool once they turn four.
Under the state government’s plan, parents would be given the choice to start receiving the same preschool subsidy for their children once they turn three.
They would be required to pay the same preschool fees which apply to four-year-olds.
Approximately 1000 children in areas of “high need” would be eligible to access 30 hours a week of preschool.
Modelling by consultant Deloitte found that South Australia would need to employ an additional 660 early childhood teachers, 880 educators and 120 “other staff” – including directors – to expand preschool to three-year-olds across government and non-government providers.
Gillard, who spent three years as the federal education minister and previously served as chairperson of the Global Partnership for Education, acknowledged that it would be a challenge to find those additional workers.
“At the moment, there are shortages of early childhood teachers and this model, the preschool model, does require a teacher to be involved in the delivery,” she said.
“We know that there are some parts of the state that are critically underserved and that is if you wanted to find a childcare centre or a preschool for your child to go to, you would be walking, driving, on the bus for a very long time, looking for a place to go.
“We heard some very graphic evidence about shortages in regional and rural South Australia, but there are also places… in Adelaide itself that there are childcare deserts where you can’t get services.”
The Royal Commissioner said she had considered changing the structure of early childhood teaching degrees to increase the workforce, but no final decisions had been made.
Asked if she had also considered salary incentives to attract people to the profession, she said: “Different levers are in the hands of different governments”.
“The lever around award wages and conditions and how the childcare sector bargains, that lever is in the hands of the federal government,” Gillard said.
“The federal government has been looking at those things.
“The lever in terms of making it more attractive job and making you feel like you’ve got the support you need to deploy your professional skills and aptitudes at the highest level, we do think that’s the state government’s… role in their investment in professional development.”
The commission was also tasked with investigating the support available for families in the first 1000 days of a child’s life, and how the government could increase workforce participation through improved access to out-of-hours child care.
Gillard said that 12.7 per cent of South Australian children are “developmentally vulnerable” in two domains, according to the Australian Early Development Census.
Nationally, 11.4 per cent of Australian children are considered to be at the same level of vulnerability.
“Overwhelmingly, South Australian children are on track and their development is on track,” Gillard said.
“But, the percentage of South Australian children who are developmentally at-risk… is greater than the national average.
“South Australian children are doing well, but we can do better.”
Premier Peter Malinauskas said the state government would provide a response to Gillard by May 19.
He said workforce constraints would challenge the government’s ability to deliver three-year-old preschool.
“We have the lowest unemployment rate in the state’s history, so developing the preschool education workforce that is going to be required to deliver this undertaking is not going to be easy, particularly if we’re going to try to do it in six years,” he said.
“The six-year rollout timeframe is ambitious, but I was particularly heartened by the recommendations to government to focus particularly on areas of disadvantage.
“The whole reason why we have this policy is we want to get to kids everywhere, but particularly those who are vulnerable.”
Education Minister Blair Boyer said the government had already started to look at ways to increase the state’s early childhood education workforce, including by increasing qualifications.
“They need to be quality staff. We need to make sure they have the training and skills they need to do this,” he said.
Former South Australian Premier and now director of Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive By Five initiative Jay Weatherill said the rollout of three-year-old preschool in South Australia could provide a model for the delivery of such a system nationwide.
“The wide scope of these recommendations also addresses key concerns around accessibility and availability of high-quality early learning within the state, especially in rural and remote parts of South Australia,” he said.
“The implementation of these recommendations will also help increase workforce participation by primary caregivers, who are primarily women and help boost the South Australian economy.”
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