This week the NSW Government announced a series of landmark initiatives for our sector, including a year of universal pre-kindergarten for all children by 2030.  

Yesterday we spoke to Minister for Education and Early Learning Sarah Mitchell to find out how the initiatives came about, what they mean for the community sector, and what plans are in place to help solve the workforce crisis.  

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By CELA on 17 Jun, 2022

This week saw over $12 billion of announcements for our sector. One of those announcements is a nation-leading reform for early education. The NSW and Victorian governments will introduce a year of universal pre-kindergarten for all children in the year before primary school by 2030. 

The universal pre-kindergarten initiative is one of the most significant education reforms in a generation and will start with an initial investment of $5.8 billion over 10 years. The initiative's first phase will be to consult, investigate, and design a model for delivery that best leverages the existing ECEC sector, with an expectation that the pre-kindergarten will be delivered on and off school sites by department preschools and existing and new providers. 

Minister Mitchell told us that a five-day-a-week universal pre-kindergarten pilot program would start as early as next year, investigating the delivery model and how it will work across different community and social settings. 

In relation to the announcement, CELA CEO Michele Carnegie described Minister Mitchell as a champion of children and the early education sector. 

“This is the culmination of years of work for Minister Mitchell,” Michele said. “It has resulted in the type of investment where those in government who have followed her leadership will be able to look back with immense pride, having been part of a decision that resulted in transforming early education to give all children access to the critical early education they need to succeed in life.”

During our interview, Minister Mitchell labelled the new initiatives as her proudest achievements while overseeing the early childhood education portfolio.  

Originally from Gunnedah in north-eastern NSW, Minister Mitchell is a mother to an 8 and a 4-year-old and has had a child attending an early education and care service for her entire time as minister. 

“So, it's my job, but it's also my life as a parent, and I think those two things coming together make this a pretty special time for families. I'm super excited for what's going to come out of this,” Minister Mitchell told us enthusiastically as she spoke to us yesterday between press conferences. 

“It’s all of the things we've been wanting to do in terms of expanding access to services, helping families with affordability and then, of course, our universal pre-kindergarten announcement for children will literally change and shape lives.  

“It recognises the importance of the early years and it recognises the amazing work that our educators do day in and day out, so this week feels pretty good.” 

When we asked Minister Mitchell how she facilitated agreement to securing the massive budget required to push forward with these reforms, she credited a change in public and government perception of the value of early learning as one of the key factors, and empathy that comes from working together with people who are also invested in the benefits that the sector has to offer.  

“When we look at the budget spends in this space over the next decade with the reforms that we've announced this week, it's certainly been a journey to bring my colleagues along the way.  

“On that point, I should also say that when it comes to our Premier and former Treasurer Dom Perrottet, he has always supported reform in this area. He's got several children himself, and so he sees the benefits.   

“Our new Treasurer, Matt Kean, also has a family. He is very passionate about supporting women and understands the economic benefits that early learning brings too. It really does feel like the three of us have come together at a really good time. It's a lot of money, but every dollar we spend in this space pays dividends for our children.” 

In case you missed them – a summary of the four other sector announcements made this week 

Four other announcements were made this week, with more immediate impacts for the sector, which included:  

Affordable Preschool:

From 1 January 2023, all NSW families will be eligible for: 

  • Up to $4,000 per year in fee relief for 3, 4 and 5-year-olds attending a community or mobile preschool 

  • Up to $2,000 per year in fee relief for 4 and 5-year-olds attending preschool in a long day care setting and 

  • The equivalent of 5 days a fortnight of affordable preschool fee relief for all children in Department of Education preschools 

The NSW Government will also invest $64.1 million for a two-year pilot to support more 3-year-olds attending preschool in long day care services. 

“A significant body of research shows that children who participate in quality preschool programs have improved lifelong educational, social and economic outcomes,” said Minister Mitchell. 

“That’s why I’m so delighted to be continuing our support for community and mobile preschools. Families using these services are not eligible for the Child Care Subsidy, so NSW’s commitment to long-term funding relief is significant and genuinely needed. 

“We are also extending support to NSW families whose children attend preschool in a long day care setting because at the end of the day, what’s important is our littlest learners having access to great quality preschool programs.” 

Brighter Beginnings

Brighter Beginnings has been designed to make the first 2,000 days easier for parents by providing wrap-around support throughout pregnancy and after birth and by incorporating an expanded suite of evidence-based development checks into early childhood learning.  

The initiative includes: 

  • Introducing health and development checks in preschool settings — $111.2 million 

  • Supporting existing Aboriginal Child and Family Centres and building 6 new centres — $98.7 million 

  • Expanding Sustaining NSW Families — $70.9 million 

  • Developing the Digital Baby Book — $57.2 million 

Unprecedented childcare boost for families 

Families in NSW will save thousands of dollars a year on childcare costs thanks to the NSW Government’s investment of up to $5 billion over the next decade to expand access to high quality, affordable care. 

The NSW Government’s investment will be made through the Affordable and Accessible Childcare and Economic Participation Fund, which will be established in this year's budget.  

The Fund will: 

  • Provide grants to childcare providers to expand infrastructure and establish new centres 

  • Target areas with limited access to childcare centres or where a shortage of childcare places poses the highest disincentive to parents returning to work  

  • Complement the Commonwealth’s demand-side childcare policy framework through flexible supply-side funding 

  • Invest $775 million over the next four years 

  • Trial new service models to meet the needs of modern families 

Minister Mitchell said that a stewardship function will be available within government to help services apply for funding and to investigate elements such as where places are needed and what affordability looks like for different areas. She noted that contrary to some media commentary, funding will be available for the entire sector, not just for-profit services, and that it will be smartly managed to recognise existing not-for-profit services that often don’t have the resources to put into the applications or to be able to access that money. 

“We have good services already operating that might just need some support to put on an extra room or to employ a few educators for a period of time until they get up and running,” said Minister Mitchell.  

“We can be innovative with how we do this. We will make sure that it’s fair and equitable. We will spend the next 6 months designing what that looks like before the funding starts in the latter half of next year. We will do that in conjunction with treasury and in consultation with the sector as well. I certainly don’t want anybody in the not-for-profit space to feel like they won’t be able to get the maximum opportunities from this. Now we need everybody working with us to get the growth and support we need for families.” 

Supercharging the workforce 

More than 18,000 prospective early childhood teachers and carers will be supported to enter the sector or boost their skills thanks to a $281.6 million workforce package in the 2022/23 NSW Budget. 

The package includes:

  • Turbocharging the scholarship program; this means more scholarships with greater flexibility and a focus on retention after study
  • Making it easier for the existing workforce to upskill, including through accelerated career pathways 
  • Partnering with universities to create new, fast-tracked programs for current early learning professionals to build on their diploma and become degree qualified
  • Providing financial incentives to services to attract and retain their workforce including through improved pay and/or conditions

Minister Mitchell said this significant investment underscores the government’s commitment to the early childhood sector and will create lasting benefits now and into the future for NSW children, families and the economy. 

How will our depleted workforce cope with these initiatives?  

We know that job vacancy data from the National Skills Commission shows job vacancies in education and care reached new highs in March. With our latest workforce pulse check survey1 showing that 75% of services who responded have staff shortages and that those shortages have existed for an average of 11 months, many of our members are concerned about how some of these initiatives will be realised.  

Earlier this week, CELA CEO Michele Carnegie was interviewed by ABC Radio Sydney. She expressed the urgent need to ensure that the proposed workforce investment happens now so that our depleted sector can be supported to retain and attract staff to meet current needs and, at the same time, build a qualified workforce to meet future demand. We must ensure that rapid growth does not come at the expense of quality early education and care. 

Michele noted that she would also like to see greater investment and growth in not-for-profit community-based early education services because this is where taxpayers see the benefit of investment, with all government funding being reinvested back into quality programs, staff remuneration and lower fees for families. 

We asked Minister Mitchell what services can do in the short term to boost their workforce and attract and retain staff in a sector where wages are seen to be low.  

“In relation to all of the announcements this week, I need to be really clear that this is absolutely going to be delivered in partnership with the sector — with all our services, including our not-for-profit providers,” said Minister Mitchell. “What it will mean in real terms is that every centre and everyone who works in early childhood will have the chance to tap into some part of this plan to grow their workforce and to grow their services.  

“On Tuesday, we announced a $280 million package to support our workforce. There are a range of initiatives within that package, including more scholarships for our early childhood teachers and those who want to take a diploma course. We are also working with the universities to look at alternative and quicker pathways into different training options and get that qualification that recognises prior learning.” 

Minister Mitchell was quick to recognise that pay and conditions are also significant factors. She noted that while national rates are set through the Fair Work Commission, a “large portion” of the $280 million package will be available for services to look at aspects like improving retention via remuneration and improved conditions. She told us that she is committed to working with the sector to devise what this looks like.  

A shared vision for accessible quality early education 

CELA CEO Michele Carnegie is delighted that this week’s announcements will work towards realising CELA’s advocacy pillars and the outcomes put forward in our 6 Point Plan for Education and Care (devised in collaboration with peak bodies ELAA and CCC) which was delivered to the government prior to the recent election.  

Our 6 Point Plan focuses around four primary outcomes, which include:  

  • High-quality education and care for children 

  • Better wages and conditions for educators 

  • Access to high-quality education and care for families when they need it, delivered by qualified educators 

  • Opportunities for all parents and carers to work 

Michele points out that extensive research has linked low access to high-quality early education to poor life outcomes further down the track — The Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy at Victoria University have estimated that nearly a quarter of children start school without the basic foundations they need to succeed at school.  

“This is a nation-building reform which will set children up for success and shows bi-partisan commitment to reforming early education,” says Michele. “This shows what is possible when government works together in the interest of children. For decades, many individuals and peak bodies such as CELA have advocated for this level of investment in early education. Research after research report has provided the evidence as to why this is so important. Finally, we have the political will to see it happen.” 

CELA looks forward to working with the government and like-minded peak bodies to ensure that the stand-alone and community-based services we represent have the resources and support they need to help realise this reform.  

“I think that if you can show people the benefits of [quality early education], it’s not hard to convince them of how vital these initiatives are,” concluded Minister Mitchell when asked to reflect on how this week’s initiatives came to fruition. “My vision is that every child in New South Wales gets the best start in life and that we have amazing early childhood services offering great high-quality care to everybody who needs it. It should be affordable and accessible, and ultimately, all children should have access to five days a week, the year before school. These announcements will help to ensure that this vision is realised, and I just couldn’t be prouder; I’m so excited.” 


1. CELA workforce pulse check survey interim results (data taken on 16 June, 2022) 

Further reading: 

CELA. 6 Point Plan for Education and Care. April 2022. 

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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