Hey, hey it’s Saturday: Demand for free preschool spurs push for weekend kinder

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Families are being asked to send their children to kindergarten on Saturdays as strong demand for the Victorian government’s expanded free kinder program threatens to overwhelm capacity at some centres.

At least four centres in Melbourne have announced plans to trial Saturday programs for three- and four-year-old kinder next year to cater for skyrocketing interest.

Parents at some centres are being given the option for Saturday kinder as demand for programs skyrockets.Credit: iStock

Some parents have rejected the prospect, saying weekends are for family time, but the move has been welcomed by others who say it could benefit shift workers. Experts say Saturday kinder could work for families who have weekend work, as long as there was enough family time during the week.

Victoria last year became the first state or territory to give children access to two years of funded kindergarten before school. Some providers have since been overwhelmed with interest, leaving parents at risk of being turned away as they reach capacity.

The four centres set to trial Saturday places are in the City of Glen Eira, in Melbourne’s south-east. They are all run by not-for-profit early years manager Glen Education.

Glen Education acting chief executive officer Melissa MacMaster said the provider operated small facilities and had been forced to come up with a new model to cater to the influx of children needing kindergarten places.

“We can’t change the structure of our building at a moment’s notice,” she said. “We don’t want to reduce the number of children … so we’ve had to be innovative with how we can make this work.”

MacMaster said while some parents would be disappointed with Saturday placements, she had also received interest from staff and from parents, many of whom worked weekends to meet rising cost-of-living pressures.

The kindergartens in Bentleigh, Bentleigh East, Carnegie and Centre Road are all tentatively offering a Saturday kinder program from 8.30am to 4pm, to be confirmed in the next fortnight.

MacMaster warned pressure would grow on kinder providers as the government program expanded.

“As great as free kinder is, it has absolutely increased our demand and we have to work more closely with councils and the government about infrastructure because … this pressure is going to increase.”

City of Glen Eira community wellbeing director Mark Saunders said there had been overwhelming demand for three-year-old kinder in the municipality.

At least five kindergarten providers in Glen Eira are currently close to capacity.

Early Childhood Australia chief executive Sam Page said she was aware of high demands for three- and four-year-old kindergarten programs.

“Saturday kindergarten may be a completely appropriate response to community needs, however, quality and community-responsive planning should be at the core of early childhood delivery,” she said.

Rachael Hedger, a senior lecturer in early children education and care at Flinders University, said Saturday kinder could work as long as the child had family time on other days.

“But you wouldn’t want to do it on top of weekday kinder because children need rest and downtime,” she said.

Bridie McKenna Parry previously ran a playgroup in Glen Eira and has her middle child booked to start three-year-old kinder in the neighbouring Stonnington municipality next year.

Bridie McKenna Parry with three-year-old Lucinda and newborn Blake.Credit: Penny Stephens

Her centre was not offering weekend sessions, but she was supportive of the concept and believed it could work well for some families, particularly parents who were shift workers.

“I think we should always try to be encouraging women to be in the workplace,” McKenna Parry said.

“Making kinder accessible by having it on the weekend means that children can still get the best start and mum can work and earn some money.”

McKenna Parry said she would have turned down a Saturday spot had she been offered because her husband works Sundays. But she said many families could benefit from Saturday kinder and centres should consider parents’ work when allocating spots.

“Lots of women’s careers get stalled because of childcare arrangements,” she said.

One mother, who asked not to be identified because she was worried about securing a place, said she was offered Thursday and Saturday, or Friday and Saturday spots for her child, who is starting three-year-old kinder in Glen Eira next year.

She said Saturday kinder could work for some shift workers, but said many families would want to spend weekends with their children.

“The majority of people are wanting to keep those weekends as a special time to spend with their young people, not exclude one of them,” she said.

The mother is now considering putting her child into one day of kindergarten at her preferred centre and then going to a different centre for a day of long daycare. She won’t get her final offer until September or October.

Kindergarten is not compulsory in Victoria, but it is strongly encouraged that children attend two years of preschool to prepare for school.

The government is rolling out five to 15 hours of free kindergarten for three-year-olds across the state and 15 hours for four-year-olds. Over a 10-year period, four-year-old kinder will increase to 30 hours.

The government says services will progressively scale up hours as the infrastructure and workforce capacity grows, which will be reviewed each year.

Community not-for-profit and council-run kindergartens and private long day care centres can all offer government-funded kindergarten programs.

Community Child Care Association executive director Julie Price said community-based long day care services did not offer Saturday services, and she said the practice was not widespread.

But Price said some kinders were offering longer, 7½-hour sessions so the 15 hours could be delivered in two days, freeing up physical space for other groups.

Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said centres should consult employees before proposing any changes to working hours, to ensure appropriate penalty rates and conditions were in place.

A Department of Education spokesperson said government-funded kindergarten programs were available at thousands of services across Victoria and there was sufficient capacity to meet current demand.

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