Tasmanian school starting age debate broken down

A proposal to lower the school starting age by the state government hinges on the definition of what is and is not formal schooling and what is a ‘school environment’. 

The debate has sprung up again this week after Tasmanian representatives of the Australian Childcare Alliance (ACA) presented to the City of Launceston Council on the impacts of the changes to the sector.

Confusion has also sprung up about how the Tasmanian proposal will impact on the state’s children.

WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION IN TASMANIA?

The first formal year of school in Tasmania is considered Prep. Children in Tasmania are required to start Prep when they are five years old as at January 1.

All Tasmanian children are legally entitled to a year of pre-compulsory part-time education in a government school in the year before Prep, known as Kindergarten.

A child must be 4 years old at 1 January to be able to commence Kindergarten

Prior to any informal or formal schooling children aged younger than four years can participate in early learning programs offered by their long day care services or child care providers.

WHAT IS THE STATE GOVERNMENT PROPOSING?

Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff.

Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff.

The proposal by Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff is to lower the school starting age from five years old to four-and-a-half years old. 

If the changes pass the Legislative Council a Tasmanian child will be required to start school the year they turn four. They will need to start Prep if they turn four-and-a-half as at January 1.

In addition to that, an in-school pre-school program, Kindergarten, will be available for children the year prior to that, when they are three-and-a-half years old.

Kindergarten will be a voluntary program. Parents who wish to keep their child in long day care until they start Prep will be able to do so.

The Kindergarten program will be play-based learning and will be structured similarly to what is already offered in long day care centres and will not be classified as formal school even though it will be a ‘school environment’ because it will be located at school.

The proposed change to the school starting age will apply to children born in 2016 and means that beginning in 2021, a child who is 4 years and 6 months by the start of the year must be enrolled in Prep or be provided with registered home education.

WHAT ARE OTHER STATES DOING?

Confusion about how the state government’s proposal is compared to other states springs from what the definitions are for the first year of formal school.

As school starting age is regulated by the states and not by the federal government each state and territory has a different format to what they consider formal school.

Victorian children start school at four-and-a-half and their first year of school is called Preparatory. 

New South Wales children start school at 4.6 years old and their first year of formal schooling is called Kindergarten.

Western Australian children start school at 4.7 years old and their first year is called Pre-Primary.

Northern Territory children start at the same age as Western Australia but call their first year Transition.

Queensland children also start at 4.7 years old and call their first year Prep. All states have different pre-school programs that are a mix of in-school and long day care programs.

SO WHY IS THERE DEBATE?

UNCERTAIN: Exeter Child Care Centre's Peter Kearney who is unsure about the future of the centre if the government's proposal goes through. Picture: Neil Richardson

UNCERTAIN: Exeter Child Care Centre's Peter Kearney who is unsure about the future of the centre if the government's proposal goes through. Picture: Neil Richardson

The Australian Childcare Alliance (ACA) created a Tasmanian branch to oppose the changes to the school starting age because of their expected impact to the child care sector.

Long day care centres expect the impact of less enrolments in child care for the 3.5 years age cohort will put significant strain on a centre’s ability to run services.

A preliminary survey presented to the City of Launceston Council on Monday said out of Launceston’s 20 long day care centres, half of them have indicated they may need to close as a result.

Child care centres argue pre-school programs could be delivered in their centres and not in schools.

They say a concern is if the programs are forced to be duplicated then parents will not choose to use them over an in-school environment.

In addition, less children will mean less spaces available and prices could be forced to rise by up to $70 a day to support the loss of enrolments.

An Education Department spokeswoman said all children should be able to access education and learning no matter where they live or their background, so they can have a better start to life.

In addition, long day care centres will be able to seek registration as a non-government school if they wish to deliver the Kindergarten service.

A for-profit long day care centre that is approved to deliver Kindergarten as a non-government school would be eligible for funding under the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education.

A non-for-profit long day care centre that is approved to deliver Kindergarten as a non-government school would be eligible for state government funding and for funding under the national partnership agreement.

SHOULD THERE BE STANDARDISED STARTING AGES?

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has supported current arrangements that allow for each state and territory to set its own school starting ages.

He said the federal government wanted all children to get the best possible start to their education but it wasn’t a province for the government to intervene.

“We've welcomed states and territories who have looked to make their school starting ages more consistent across the country," Minister Birmingham said.

He said he welcomed evidence-based decisions about reforms in schools such as the ones proposed by the Tasmanian Government.

"At the moment students in some states, such as Tasmania, can be missing out on years of school compared to their peers in other parts of the country because of school starting and leaving ages. I strongly welcome reforms in Tasmania to expand educational access and consistency of starting age, which may spark further cross-border discussions,” he said.