On the brink of a mining boom, the town of Mudgee is questioning how its fossil fuel-driven future will reshape the early childhood education landscape. Ingrid Maack visits Mudgee Preschool—one of the biggest early education and care services in NSW.

When I grow up I want to be a miner’, reads the text on a child’s artwork featuring a smiling stick figure with a miner’s lamp and a bag full of coal. The artwork hangs on the wall of a gallery in an exhibition, themed ‘Belonging, Being and Becoming’, organised by staff and children at Mudgee Preschool.

When Rattler visits Mudgee Preschool, this theme is echoed in the children’s play, as children gather in the playground’s dirt patch littered with child-sized shovels and begin to dig.

‘Look at the way the dirt crumbles’… ‘Why is this rock shiny do you think? … ‘What have you found there?’ asks an educator. ‘I’m digging for coal’ says a little boy.

It is a vivid reminder that many of these children are the children of miners and that Mudgee is a town with a rich mining history and indeed, a rich mining future.

The town of Mudgee, a Wiradjuri term meaning ‘Nest in the hills’, lies in the fertile valley of the Cudgegong River in the state’s Central West. Riding the crest of a food and wine-led tourism boom (olivegrowing, vineyards, sheep farms and a thriving hospitality industry), the region is set to grow further due to an expansion of its coalmines, with anticipated population growth of 23–25 per cent over the next 3–5 years.

Consisting of two services (Perry Street and South Mudgee campuses), Mudgee Preschool is currently the only community-based service in the town.

There are also three private long day care centres and a council-run family day care scheme—all of which are currently running at or close to capacity.

‘New people are coming into town all the time and I get enquiries at the preschool daily for places. It is the same story across Mudgee—all services are feeling the pressure,’ explains preschool director, Rosie Gibbs.

So what does this mean for the 80-place preschool (one of the largest in the state) that already has more than 200 children on its waiting list? ‘People say there needs to be another preschool in Mudgee. The region has been identified under the PIRP program as not having enough places.’ But bigger is not necessarily better, according to this director who is working with other agencies within the Mudgee Child and Family Network, CareWest and Council to assess how Mudgee will respond to projected population growth from mining activity.

Mudgee may well need another preschool but Rosie and the preschool’s Board of Management are reluctant to add a third service to the Mudgee Preschool banner.

‘Because we are so big, it’s difficult for us to grow further… The risk for us is that we would lose quality and what we feel makes Mudgee Preschool special.’ ‘What makes us special is that we are well connected with our families, our children and the community. To become bigger would potentially dilute this.’ The preschool’s recent art exhibition entitled ‘Belonging, Being and Becoming’, widely attended by parents and members of the community, is surely the perfect example of those allimportant connections.

‘Last year an exhibition was held at a local winery, owned by one of the parents. This year, it is being held in a nearby art gallery, allowing every child to go on a walking excursion to see their photos, mosaics, clay work and drawings of families and friends on display.’ Rattler was fortunate to join hands with children on one of these outings and walk alongside parents, grandparents and educators to experience ‘Belonging, Being and Becoming’ firsthand.

Centrally located and housed within an old bowling club, the beautifully-converted Perry Street campus was opened in 1956. The service was expanded in 1990 when the South Mudgee Campus opened its doors in the town’s Masonic Lodge which has been modified to include a playground, sandpit and child-sized toilets. Up until last year, the South Mudgee Campus catered mostly for three year olds, with children typically starting at the ‘little preschool’ (South Mudgee with one unit) before moving up to the ‘big preschool’ (Perry Street with 3 units).

But this changed due to the town’s rapid population growth and the need to ensure all four year olds have access.

‘Initially, there was some resistance from families when their four year old child was allocated a spot at South Mudgee, (which does not have the abundant green space of Perry Street) but parents soon realised that although different, it is still a great service.

‘We deliberately changed the name and signs from South Mudgee Preschool to Mudgee Preschool (South Mudgee Campus) to highlight the strong link between the two services,’ she says.

While the campuses are located four kilometers apart, resources and relief staff are shared. Children from the South Mudgee campus regularly visit to play in the larger playground and meet their future schoolmates.

South Mudgee also provides a more intimate setting for those children with special needs who, as Rosie explains, might be overwhelmed by the size and the numbers at Perry Street.

The preschool is particularly committed to the inclusion of children with special needs in a town where there is currently no dedicated early childhood intervention service.

Rosie says children with disabilities and their families are seriously disadvantaged in Mudgee. ‘Some families have the means and resources to look for services and can afford to travel to other regional centres, but most don’t.’

For many families, Mudgee Preschool is the only place they are getting any form of early intervention. There are currently 12 special needs children with diagnoses who require additional support and for whom the preschool receives limited funding.

‘There are, of course, others who do not have a diagnosis yet and who do not receive funding, but receive lots of support,’ explains Rosie.

Following a visit from a teacher from the Hearing Support Team, educators now use an audio system to amplify their voices during group time.

‘The teacher told us that we could assume that at any one time there would be up to 30 per cent of children suffering from conductive hearing loss (otitis media, glue ear), which would affect their behaviour, speech and language and general health and wellbeing.

‘After a trial, our teachers decided that not only did the children benefit from the sound system, but they did too. One of our assistants is hearing impaired and it has made a big difference to her!’ Supporting children with special needs is a particular passion for Britishborn and South African-bred Rosie, who worked in a preschool in a small mining community near Kimberley in South Africa for two years before emigrating to Australia and working as an early intervention teacher with a small group of children in Gulgong, NSW.

‘Having left South Africa just before the end of apartheid, it was liberating for me to come into a country where the concepts of multiculturalism and antibias were embedded in the curriculum, were explicit and were (more or less) practiced.’

With the help of the preschool’s Board of Management, Rosie has also succeeded in having a third support person (usually a special needs worker, of which there are five) allocated to each class, alongside a teacher and an assistant.

The preschool has 25 dedicated staff (23 of whom work part-time), allowing the team to enjoy a healthy worklife balance and to voluntarily pursue further study ahead of the new NQF requirements — with 11 staff currently studying through TAFE or university.

Having such a diverse team has also added layer upon layer of richness, as staff bring a range of experience, skills and interests to the job.

‘A few educators are keen gardeners and have formed a gardening committee and open garden event. Another plays the guitar beautifully and takes her class to the nursing home to sing. A few love animals and ensure we have a revolving menagerie of budgerigars, goldfish, hermit crabs, stick insects, chooks and rabbits. And our administration manager is also a qualified masseuse who helps to relieve headaches and aching backs with massage and pressure point touch!’

Rosie and her team have embraced preparing for the National Quality Framework (NQF) as an opportunity for continuous improvement.

Through discussions with staff (identifying areas of interest) and her own reading of the EYLF and NQF, Rosie has identified three areas that could be improved, changed or developed.

‘These are Cultural Competence, Information and Technology and Environment and Sustainable Practices.

All staff have chosen one of these areas of interest to work on as part of a team, identifying what we do well, what we could do better and developing a plan of action to share with others.’

And what of Mudgee’s mining rich future?… Well, Rosie was recently invited by Mudgee’s mayor to share her vision for early childhood education for the region. In her submission, she wrote about a multi-purpose early childhood hub including a preschool/long day care centre, an early intervention centre, a base for a mobile preschool unit to cater for children in outlying areas, as well as offices and therapy or meeting rooms.

‘If the Mid-Western Regional Council provided some land, the mines that are driving the growth of the region funded the building, and the relevant departments contributed some funding for staff and operating costs … then I believe anything is possible.’

This article first appeared in Rattler Magazine, Issue 99, Spring 2011

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