Despite some uncertainty around its future funding, one preschool provider in the Central West is focused on its continued success in addressing Aboriginal disadvantage. By Camille Howard

(This article first appeared in Rattler 111, published by Community Child Care Co-operative (NSW). To purchase a copy, go to:

In 2009, as part of its commitment to Closing the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed on a National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Early Childhood Development.

The aim was to work together to improve the early childhood outcomes of Indigenous children by addressing their high levels of disadvantage to give them the best start in life.

It’s a goal that CareWest Child and Family Services, in Central West NSW, has been working on for the past 15 years.

‘We recognised there was massive underrepresentation and under-participation of Aboriginal children in preschool services in Orange and Parkes,’ says Tim Curran, CareWest CEO.

So, through its management of the SCAN (Supporting Children with Additional Needs) program, the organisation set about playing an active role in trying to boost the number of Aboriginal children and families accessing preschool services.

‘What we came to realise, though, for all the good work we were doing with the existing preschool services, there were still way too many Aboriginal kids missing out,’ Curran says.

Seeing a funding opportunity through the Preschool Investment and Reform Plan (PIRP), CareWest set about establishing new preschool services that specifically targeted Aboriginal children, children with disability and children from economically disadvantaged families who were not accessing preschool services. Over two years (from 2009–2010) five services were established in the Central West—four of which were set up in public schools in disadvantaged communities in Orange and Parkes.

‘Those preschools were not just Aboriginal services,’ Curran explains. ‘We ran them on an Early Start model and gave preference to Aboriginal children and children from families that could not afford the fees associated with the preschools.’


If you build it, will they come?

Because a preschool doesn’t exist without the children and families it supports, next came the challenge of engaging with the local communities. In Orange, particularly, it started with building on the work the two public schools—Glenroi Heights and Bowen—had already been doing around engaging with their local communities.

‘These schools are near significant social housing estates,’ Curran explains. ‘The schools have worked for many years on building strong links to their local communities, and we were able to build on the back of that.

‘We were also able to work closely with other established groups in Orange, particularly the Aboriginal Women’s Gathering, building on the great work they have done with local Aboriginal families and community, and the work they have done to help promote the importance of education and early education to those families.’

CareWest employed Aboriginal teachers and educators, and an Aboriginal Family Support Officer, whose role it was to knock on doors, meet with families and be a constant presence in the community, particularly at Bowen and Glenroi preschools, where there are large Aboriginal populations.

glenroi-heights-preschool-243Peter Callaghan, CareWest’s preschool team leader, says this went a long way towards building trust with the community, breaking down barriers and fostering the idea that the preschool was part of their community, too.

‘We identified that enrolling a child into preschool can be very daunting aspect for a lot of families,’ Callaghan explains. ‘We had families that were illiterate so [the Family Support Officer would] sit down and help them fill out an enrolment form. Or they would attend with the family and the child on that first day of preschool, building up trust. Three years later, we have really found that it helped in getting families into our preschools.’

Even though enrolments and attendances are up, this community engagement and relationship building is ongoing. Callaghan shares a story about a family that had left the preschool unexpectedly: ‘Our family officer visited the family to ask after the child and found that when the family arrived one day at preschool, they couldn’t find the sign-in sheet and thought “This is too hard”, and left.

‘When we heard that story, we realised that we have to work with families from the very beginning and keep in contact with them so they feel comfortable in their time with us. A lot of the focus goes into making the kids comfortable, but we really identified that these families needed that support as well.’

Financial support is also important for disadvantaged families, so the traditional fee structure was removed. ‘Initially the fee was voluntary,’ Curran says. ‘We [then] moved towards a nominal donation model, which effectively transferred into a low fee.’

This model, Curran explains, encourages families to recognise and understand the value of preschool. ‘Now all families have to pay that nominal fee.’ (The lowest fee starts around $5, peaking at $20 per day, depending on family circumstances.)

And to promote strong attendance, CareWest offers transport assistance for families that live too far away, or where it is otherwise physically impossible to get to the service—it’s an offering that is essential for many families during the freezing winter period in Orange.

Numbers game

Thanks to the hard work already done by the Aboriginal Women’s Gathering, the primary schools and the Family Support Officer, the number of enrolments has been strong since the preschools were set up. And it continues to grow, which is pretty impressive given the transient nature of many of the local Aboriginal families, particularly in Orange.

‘It’s not like a traditional preschool, where towards the end of a preschool year you’ve got all your enrolments sorted for the next year and you’ve got your waiting list,’ Curran explains. ‘We have a lot of people set up in January and the first few weeks of term, and it’s only then that we are able to engage them back into the service—but we’ve seen that change over time. Now, in our third year of service, we found that we had strong enrolments from day one, and by week two, week, three, week four, we’ve been able to fill the service.’


Callaghan says this comes back to the trust the preschools have worked hard to build with families. ‘We find that it takes time for that trust to really build, and that to me is the number-one thing in our little communities. We’re now at capacity and our attendance rate is nearly 90 per cent. And that’s really taken three years of working with communities getting them to trust who we are. For example, I had a one family say to another, “This is Peter from CareWest, you can trust him”.’

Trust is also reflected through program development. ‘Our family officer is involved in our program development and our program implementation, so families are seeing their culture reflected in our everyday operation and program development. And we have found that families are now becoming curious as to what we’re doing, and we find they’re asking questions.’

Regular information sessions are scheduled to let families and the community know what is happening in the preschools, and Callaghan says participation in these sessions is ‘through the roof’.

‘We make the whole atmosphere very relaxed and happy, and make sure they know that they can come to us or into the preschool at any time.’

This is extended to the wider community, too, with Aboriginal elders included in activities at the preschools, such as recent NAIDOC celebrations, or inclusion on the interview panel when recruiting for Aboriginal staff members. Families and community elders were also consulted when the outdoor play area was redesigned, to ensure it was culturally appropriate.

The importance of building and maintaining these relationships has been a learning experience for Callaghan. ‘I came from a background where the solution was about how much money we could put into advertising, posters and the free hats. Here it’s about working with those communities,’ he says, praising his team of teachers and educators. ‘We’re lucky with the staff we have in the preschool. We have literally had no turnover of staff; they’ve been there for three years.’

Former Governor General, Quentin Bryce, on her visit to Glenroi Heights Preschool last year.

Former Governor General, Quentin Bryce, on her visit to Glenroi Heights Preschool last year. (Government House, Canberra)

Progress report

It appears that all CareWest’s hard work is paying off, with the flow-on effect reflected in kindergarten attendance and performance.

‘We hear from the schools that the children in their kindergarten rooms have doubled,’ Callaghan says. ‘But there are not only more kids enrolled in kindergarten, they are more going regularly. At Glenroi preschool, we had 27 kids go to kindergarten last year, and their attendance rate is up. We’re helping at that first step, the preschool step, where the kids are going into the school system and they are attending more.’

Having the services within schools has played a big part in ensuring the step into kindergarten from preschool is not daunting for children and families. ‘They are already a part of the school community, not just the preschool community,’ Callaghan says. ‘We work very closely with the school in terms of transition, so transition starts the moment the children step into preschool, whether they are three or four, to get used to that environment.’

The school’s kindergarten teachers visit the preschool and get to know the children and the families, and the preschool children visit the kindergarten rooms, the library and attend school events to help ease the transition, Callaghan explains. ‘We find the kids get very excited about going to school. And the families are at ease as well.’

And thanks to the high attendance levels at preschool, the staff have a better shot at identifying the many children with language and speech delays at an early stage, before they go to school. ‘We work with other agencies in Orange, such as early intervention or NSW Health at the base hospital, where the speech therapists come to us,’ Callaghan explains. ‘They’re getting help with key areas of their development early, rather than when they get to kindergarten where they would be disadvantaged straight away.’

Into the future

With all this success, there’s a small dark cloud hanging over CareWest’s preschools, with uncertainty about funding.

‘Things are little up in the air for us at the moment because our services are technically classified as mobile services*,’ Curran explains, ‘and the funding model is uncertain at the moment for mobile services in the future. But the Department of Education and Communities is working hard to nail it down right now.’

Despite the uncertainty, Curran remains positive. ‘We are confident that things will change and that the new mobile funding model will be confirmed soon—certainly before the end of this school year—and in sufficient time to enable us to do the budget for next year and keep employing the teachers and the staff. We can’t believe that any government would reduce funding for this type of preschool service because it delivers so much value and does so much towards Closing the Gap.

‘What we do is not unique’ Curran admits. ‘We were not the first organisation to develop an Early Start model, nor were we the first to provide preschools services from public schools, but we’ve pulled those things together and we’ve achieved great success in the short time we’ve been operating services in the western region. And an awful lot of credit goes to the schools that we work with and other Aboriginal-controlled community organisations that we partner with.

‘We know this model works,’ he adds. ‘There are so many benefits to it, and we know that we can replicate it in other communities across the Central West, and indeed anywhere.’


And because of these benefits, and despite the success, Callaghan says CareWest’s job is far from over. ‘We still feel there are families out there that we’re not getting to, because there are still kids going to these kindergartens with no preschool background. So we have to ask ourselves how we’re missing those kids, why aren’t the families wanting to come to us,’ he says.

‘We’ve got to keep asking ourselves how we can do things better to make sure that all families are coming to us and feeling comfortable and the kids are enjoying preschool and going off to school.’


* The CareWest preschools are classified as mobile services because they don’t operate five days a week and technically the rooms can be used by other services. This means they are covered under the state regulations (Children [Education and care Services] Supplementary Provisions Regulations 2012) rather than as a centre based service under the National Regulations.

~Photography: Alex Wisser.

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