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Songs and games dominate early years

When the five-year-old arrived home from his first day at school, his mother asked him what he had learned. "Not much," he said sadly, "I have to go back again tomorrow."

This was a different lad to the one who had rushed off happily to kindergarten each morning the year before. But then kindergarten in most states in Australia is an entirely different place to the more formal classroom of the primary school.

Based on the education principles set out by Friedrich Froebel in the early 19th century, the Australian kindergarten is typified by play, games, songs and self-activity. Kindergarten teachers undertake early childhood training, often in their own specialist institutions, and they come to believe, as Froebel did, in the continuity of a child's life from infancy onwards, and that self-activity, determined by children's interests and intelligently directed, is essential to the unfolding of their inborn capacities.

But there is considerable variation between the states in how the kindergarten system functions in Australia, with government playing a large role in some instances and almost none in others.

In Victoria, up until last year, the typical kindergarten had a teacher, an aide and a maximum of 25 children - usually four-year-olds - in one of two groups who attended for four or five half-days a week. Unlike the state school system, with its central control over staffing and salaries, kindergartens are run by autonomous management committees of parents and they employ the teachers and aides.

Although parents pay fees towards some of the operating costs, the state government used to meet the salaries of the teacher and aide, plus additional expenses such as insurance.

But with the election of a new Conservative administration intent on savage cost-cutting, the budget for kindergartens was slashed by Pounds 5.2 million in 1994 - a 20 per cent reduction. Previously, the government had a central office that paid teachers and provided grants towards the kindergarten's running costs. This system was also scrapped and all management shifted to the committees.

The result, according to the Kindergarten Teachers Association, has been a doubling in fees to Pounds 70 a term and a consequent substantial fall-off in the number of children enrolled. The association estimates that 8,000 fewer children are now in kindergartens and that class sizes have jumped from 25 to 30.

Whereas teachers previously worked with an average of 48 children a week, they now have responsibility for 67 as management committees boost numbers to attract the annual Pounds 410-per-child government subsidy.

Inevitably, the changes have had a serious impact on access and equity. Poorer parents can no longer afford to meet even the modest fees and have been forced to withdraw their children. In well-to-do areas, parents make up any shortfall by paying for additional equipment and facilities themselves.

Elsewhere, as in New South Wales, the most populous state, the state government plays virtually no role in managing kindergartens and parents must meet most of the costs.

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