Alexis Hughes, of Lismore Preschool Kindergarten, with concerned staff and kids yesterday.
Alexis Hughes, of Lismore Preschool Kindergarten, with concerned staff and kids yesterday. The Northern Star

New funding rules threaten preschools

CHANGES to the way the Department of Community Services (DOCS) funds preschools in NSW will increase fees and could force some North Coast preschools to close down, local preschool directors warn.

Lismore Preschool Kindergarten director Alexis Hughes said her school had been eligible for $20,000 in funding to subsidise fees for families earning less than $40,000 a year. However, under the Government's new funding model that money was no longer available.

"It will affect about a third of (our) parents who were eligible for that subsidised fund. It has been our life line," she said.

"Lismore Preschool Kindergarten had two classrooms, but if the number of enrolments drop it may be forced to close one down.

"We are funded per child under the new model... so we are being penalised because our fees will have to be higher. It's a catch 22; if our fees are higher it will mean that some people don't come. If they were lower and more affordable then more people would come."

Preschools in NSW were under a funding freeze from 1989 to 2006. The new funding model is part of what the State Government calls its '$85 million Preschool Investment and Reform Plan'. But under the new model several local preschools have had their funding frozen for another five years.

Nimbin Preschool director Kathy Williamson said: "Whatever we got this year is what we will get for the next five years; no matter how many increases we get in rent, insurance, wages. We are already struggling so we will have to raise our fees and increase our fundraising."

Even before the new funding arrangements came into place on July 1, Nimbin Preschool had to raise $8000 each year to cover its funding deficit.

"If we're starved of funds we won't be able to afford qualified teachers. If enrolments drop, then small rural centres will be closed and people will be forced to travel long distances to town. It's very grim," she said.

Ms Williamson said the Federal Government should step in because people who sent their children to State-funded preschools were not eligible for the 50 per cent rebate that people whose children went to Federally-funded day care centres received.

"We all believed after the last (state) election we would be adequately funded. It's very disappointing," she  said.

Ms Williamson claims preschools had a different approach to preparing children for school and many regional areas could not support long day care centres, which were generally bigger.

Early education advocacy group the Community Child Care Cooperative says some inequalities have been addressed with higher rates of funding applied to indigenous children and those from low-income families.

However, in order to spread the money more fairly, some needy preschools have had their funding cut.

Clunes Preschool director Melinda Gambley said many preschools were under-funded and had to top up revenue by fundraising.

Ms Gambley was not sure just how much funding her preschool would lose under the new model because figures varied depending on enrolments and other factors, but said it could be between $15,000 and $20,000 a year.

"For five years we will be okay but we have to start planning now," she said.

"It's going to be something that happens year after year after year. First we will look at different options of how we can cut back while asking for things from the community, all the things we cannot afford to pay for.

"And then it gets to the point where we cannot pay for things and we have to raise the fees. It's always the low income families that suffer.

"Nobody's getting enough to start with. You can send a child to long day care for $5 to $10 a day, why should people be paying $25 to $30 for preschool?"

Community preschools are funded by DOCS, receiving around $74,000 a year, with the few Department of Education-funded preschools get $240,000 a year.

Long daycare and family day care are funded by the Federal Government and are subject to further rebates in the form of the child care tax rebate and child care benefit.

In other states 90 per cent of children attend preschool and pay under $20. In NSW 15 to 20 per cent of children will not have access to preschool and those that do pay an average of $39 per day.

Mullumbimby Community Preschool director Dianne Davison along with other preschool directors, said there was a push towards long day care.

"It's a bit of a worry for the future of preschools," she said.

"The general push is for us to go to long day care. But parents appreciate the different environment of preschools, the smaller numbers, the community feel that you've got with parent involvement."

The Star tried to contact DOCS to discuss the issues raised by the preschools, but the department was unable to provide a comment by the editorial deadline.


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