NSW withholds $350 million in child education funding

NEW South Wales has the most expensive childcare in the country, and a new audit of state finances shows the State Government has withheld hundreds of millions of dollars from the sector.

The NSW Auditor-General found the State Government had not spent $227 million of the $822 million in federal childcare funding it had received over the three years to 2014-15.

Including the NSW Government's own contributions, there was a $350 million shortfall between budgeted and actual expenditure over the four years to 2014-15.

The report suggested the purposeful hoarding was intended to bolster the state's treasury during a climate of uncertainty about future federal funding.

"The department advised that $227 million of the Australian Government receipts for the period up to 2014-15 have been allocated across the budget forward estimates," it stated.

"This mitigates the risk arising from the variability and uncertainty in Australian Government funding."

The National Council of Social Services in February said NSW spent less than any other state or territory on educating children up to age 12 - just $202 per child, compared with $347 in Victoria, $644 in South Australia and $683 Western Australia.

The group called on the Baird Government to increase its outlay to $600 per child.

Childcare costs fluctuate from region to region, according to average prices listed on website CareforKids.com.au.

In Grafton, the average childcare centre costs $89.70 daily per child, compared to $80.37 in Lismore, $78.15 in Coffs Harbour and $65.96 in Tweed Heads South.

Sydney City parents pay up to twice as much as those on the North Coast, with the average price sitting at $150.34 per day for the 2000 postcode.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics stated only 3% of available childcare in NSW attracted no fee in 2014, compared to 28% for the country as a whole.

Those figures may explain why so few NSW children attend preschool or "long daycare" for more than 15 hours per week.

"NSW remains considerably short of the target for 95% of children in the year before school to be enrolled in quality early childhood education programs for at least 600 hours," the Auditor-General's report found.

"While the exact percentage is clouded by the data quality problems, in 2015 it was estimated at 77%."

There was a silver lining to the otherwise damning report.

In 2013, only 82% of NSW children were enrolled in some form of early childhood education - be it occasional daycare to comprehensive preschool training.

NSW had improved to 99% by 2015, although it remained the only state to fall short of the 100% enrolment mark.

Early Childhood Education Minister Leslie Williams this month announced $14 million would be spent to help regional and remote community preschools take on more children.

"The grants are worth up to $15,000 each and are aimed at giving more children, especially those from Aboriginal and low-income families the benefits of preschool education in the year before school," Mrs Williams said.

"Research tells us that a quality preschool education for at least 600 hours in the year prior to starting primary school gives children a head start in their learning journey."

But that still leaves $336 million in budgeted childcare funding sitting in the state coffers. -ARM NEWSDESK

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