South Australia is hammering out what could be a model for preschool education nationally, with a royal commission headed by former prime minister Julia Gillard. By Rick Morton.

Julia Gillard’s childhood royal commission

Former prime minister Julia Gillard and South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas announce the royal commission into early childhood education and care.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard and South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas announce the royal commission into early childhood education and care.
Credit: Supplied

South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas is doing policy a little differently with his government’s pledge to introduce universal access to preschool for three- and four-year-olds: he’s holding the royal commission first. 

“We are very keen to get it right first time around, not to examine what we got wrong after the fact,” he tells The Saturday Paper

“I do care about the nation, of course – every Australian does – but, given the significant responsibility and opportunity that comes with being premier, I have got a chance to do this in South Australia in, hopefully, a nation-leading way.”

The policy itself, he says, is an “absolute no-brainer”, so the inquiry led by former prime minister Julia Gillard will not necessarily look at whether children should be in preschool, but at what is the most cost-effective way of making that a reality in the state.

“It’s a big [task],” Gillard said in mid-October, “but a profound one for the future of this state.”

The way he speaks about it, it’s clear Malinauskas sees this project as a model for the country. The premier is hopeful Gillard’s $2.45 million royal commission – which is due to report provisionally in April and finally in August next year – will find a way where other missions have failed. 

“The challenge we’ve got as a nation, as we seek to decarbonise, is to make our economy more complex,” he says.

“At the same time we want to achieve that objective, on many scores our educational outcomes – particularly at a school age – have on average been going backwards, not just relative to the rest of the world but also relative to ourselves 15 years ago … So we know that something needs to change. We know that all the research tells us that the early years is the best place to invest your effort.”

There is no cost attached to this promise, beginning in 2026, because the inquiry is yet to figure out the approach, he says. This is key because, as one sector source tells The Saturday Paper, “we will never have universal access through a subsidy model”.

“We need to be funding children, not parents,” they said. “If you just take a look at how much money has been spent in childcare, it is exponentially more from both parents and governments than 30 years ago, and it has never been more expensive.” And still, teachers with the same qualifications are paid 20 to 30 per cent less in preschool compared with peers in a traditional school. Why? Subsidised childcare has an inflationary effect on the cost of childcare, without necessarily raising the standard of care. This is because the subsidy is paid to the families, and the childcare operator can price that subsidy into their fees. If preschools were run more like schools, then direct funding would make them a fixed cost. 

This is perhaps what Malinauskas is alluding to when he says “state governments wearing the full cost of this on their own is very difficult to do indeed”.

“We’ve got this situation where, in Australia, we’ve got multiple ways of service delivery for preschool children from multiple levels of government and the for-profit and non-profit sectors. So it is inherently complex,” he says.

In his view, one of the reasons for the royal commission is to have a thorough examination of the different methods of delivery within the available funding models. 

“So that’s the pragmatic element. But we want to make sure that in searching for a cost-effective way to deliver such an important service, we’re also not compromising quality.” 

This year, New South Wales and Victoria reached out across the political divide to announce all four-year-old children would receive a free year of preschool by 2030 in a policy that would cost about $10 billion over the decade. Although Victoria has also promised free kindergarten for three-year-olds from next year, this is not the same as the universal preschool (or “pre-prep”, as it is called in that state) announcement for four-year-olds. 

Before the 2019 federal election, Bill Shorten attempted to differentiate Labor from the Coalition government’s obstructionist tendencies on funding commitments regarding the four-year-old preschool program. Each year the Coalition government would decide – often at the last minute – if the program would be extended for another 12 months. Shorten promised a 10-year, $10 billion plan to fund access for three- and four-year-olds but lost the election. A new funding agreement was eventually struck just before this year’s election, in a last-ditch bid to keep the Coalition in power. This four-year deal promises more than $1.8 billion but, again, only for four-year-olds.

At the time, Scott Morrison’s office liked to brief that they would fund three-year-old preschool access once families started using the offer on the table for four-year-olds. They argued attendance was too low as a demonstration of its weak popularity. Overseas, however, where universal access is free for families, attendance is about 95 per cent. 

Under the new Commonwealth agreement, South Australia is funding about $28 million each year. Adding three-year-olds would at least double the cost on the current approach and, by some estimates, Malinauskas’s policy would cost the state more than $100 million. No money has been budgeted yet.

“Of course there will be a cost; I get asked about the cost frequently,” the premier says.

“My point is, when you talk about the cost of doing this you have got to also have the courage to talk about the cost of not doing it.

“Because there is a massive cost to not doing this, and that basically is a conscious decision to allow Australia to fall further behind the rest of the world when it comes to education service delivery and then outcomes. Now, who thinks that is a good idea?”

Malinauskas is also keenly aware that he will likely not be premier when his plan bears fruit.

“This is the whole point,” he says. “To be honest, the vast bulk of the beneficiaries of this will be children who are not yet born. But I think we can make a virtue of that.”

As things currently stand, the best-case scenario researchers know of regarding child development is that one-fifth of kids are vulnerable by the time they start school. Lost time in the early years often means lost time over their entire life span. No amount of hand-wringing about educational standards in high school or the content of the national curriculum can reverse the physiological and sociological delays faced by kids, especially those with difficult family lives. 

Such programs are important to children generally, but they are sometimes the only thing standing between a child born into disadvantage and a life well lived. Studies around the world suggest it is these children who stand to gain the most. And alongside this social equity benefit, Malinauskas sees gains in workforce participation among parents who can access the scheme. 

“I’m disappointed for the country that we don’t already have this,” Malinauskas says. 

“Where once Australia always aspired to be global leaders on things as elementary as education, now we are far from it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "The early learning curve".

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