Celebrating 120 years of early childhood education

College staff circa 1900

In 2015, KU Children’s Services celebrated 120 years since the organisation was founded and early education in Australia was born. Since its establishment in 1895, KU has gone on to become one of Australia’s leading community based, not for profit providers of early education, enriching the lives of more than 14,500 children and families each year, through over 140 early education services and programs.

From humble beginnings

In 1895 education for young children was virtually non existent in Australia. In response to community need, a group of kindergarten enthusiasts led by feminist reformer Maybanke Anderson, established the Kindergarten Union of NSW, an organisation aimed at providing education to the community’s most disadvantaged children.

At its establishment, the objectives of the Kindergarten Union were:

1. To set forth kindergarten principles.

2. To endeavour to get those principles introduced into every school in NSW.

3. To open free kindergartens wherever possible in poor neighbourhoods.

In 1896, with only £50 to its name, the Kindergarten Union successfully opened the first free kindergarten in Australia in the Sussex Street Mission Hall, Sydney with only three children attending. With few families in the area, and the poor conditions of the property severely hindering enrolments, the centre closed its doors shortly after, relocating to Charles Street, Woolloomooloo. Although enrolments amplified, the conditions of the new premises were also deemed inadequate, and the kindergarten finally moved to Dowling Street, Woolloomooloo, where it remained for 21 years. By 1911, the Kindergarten Union had successfully opened eight free kindergartens across Sydney. While the era signified a time of much adversity, ridicule and a general lack of funding for the fledgling Kindergarten Union, the founders’ continued persistence, courage and determination saw the birth of early education in Australia.

Sydney Kindergarten Training College 1913-14

The Kindergarten Training College

From its inception, the Kindergarten Union “cherished the idea of training teachers”, a notion that soon became a reality, with staff at the Woolloomooloo Free Kindergarten attending training three afternoons a week in a makeshift classroom above the centre, often drawing on Fröebelian methods, and educational practices based on leading information and research coming out of America, Europe and the United Kingdom at the time. Attracting students was initially a difficult task. Free tuition in exchange for assistance in the Kindergarten was offered in a bid to attract students, however, such an incentive did not have the positive effect on enrolments as hoped. “To most people a kindergartener was merely a glorified nursemaid, because as everyone knows, or at least knew then, ‘anybody can mind a baby’.” (Anderson, M., The story of the Free Kindergartens and Playgrounds Sydney: Kindergarten Union of NSW, circa 1912) In 1899, the Training College moved to 17 Roslyn Gardens, Elizabeth Bay and a three year course of training for kindergarten teachers was instituted, with a focus on child development, supporting an increase in enrolments. Teachers were encouraged to step back, carefully observe children and use their observations to plan timely interventions to encourage and support children to become successful at their tasks. By 1902, the name ‘Sydney Kindergarten Training College’ (SKTC) was adopted. The SKTC relocated to a larger premises in 1904, again in 1913, and finally in 1925 to Waverley in an effort to manage the ever expanding number of students. The college was renamed the Sydney Kindergarten Teachers’ College in 1969 and under Federal Government educational reforms, became a College of Advanced Education in 1976. Eventually amalgamating with the Nursery School Teachers’ College, the College later became the Institute of Early Childhood, moving to Macquarie University in 1990.

Staff remain the very heart of KU - their expertise, continued commitment and passion towards providing the best early education experiences for young children and their families have remained a hallmark of the organisation since its inception

KU Centre no details available

Growth and adaption

In 1938, the Commonwealth Government began investing heavily in early childhood services for the first time. As the only national body representing early childhood, the fledgling Australian Association for Preschool Child Development (AAPSCD), of which the Kindergarten Union was a founding member, was the recipient of those funds. One of the major achievements of the increased funding was the establishment of ‘Model Child Development Centres’, including the Lady Gowrie Child Centre in Erskineville, opened by the Kindergarten Union in the 1940s With the advent of the Second World War, the Kindergarten Union was faced with significant challenges, as many women for the first time were required to enter the workforce. In response, the Kindergarten Union extended kindergarten hours to accommodate working mothers. 1945 signalled the end of the Second World War, but challenges remained for the Kindergarten Union, with the baby boom and post war European immigration boosting the Australian population. To meet the needs of the changing communities, the Kindergarten Union introduced Mobile Preschool vans, to service the newly developed Sydney suburbs of Concord, Yagoona, Chullora and Merrylands. Each solution however, seemed to come with new challenges, this time being staffing concerns. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Kindergarten Union struggled to retain and support staff in the face of limited funding and declines in real wages. After several unsuccessful approaches to the government to increase funding, things took a turn for the better when the NSW Industrial Court handed down a new award, ensuring that the Kindergarten Union trained teachers were paid the equivalent of two year trained primary school teachers employed by the Department of Education in the early 1970s.

KU Wickham 1946

Diversity and inclusion

The Kindergarten Union continued to face adversity head on as the Women’s Liberation Movement gained momentum in the early 1970s. Many women began to agitate for long day care, rather than preschools, to support mothers’ participation in the paid workforce. In response, the Kindergarten Union opened their first long day care service, Union Child Care in Darlington, Sydney. Shortly after, the Commonwealth Government changed the policy landscape, with the introduction of the Child Care Act in 1972, providing government operational funding for community based long day care centres, which was withdrawn in 1997. Recognising the increasing need for the inclusion of children with additional needs within mainstream early education services, the Kindergarten Union introduced the sector’s first Special Education Advisory team in the early 1980s. This was soon followed by the first Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) centre in 1984, providing on site childcare, while new migrant parents attended English language classes. Renamed as KU Children’s Services in 19 91, KU continued to respond to the ongoing need for inclusion basedservices through the establishment of the Families First Program in Airds in 1992 (later renamed KU Starting Points Macarthur), a service offering home visits and a group program for families with children aged from birth to five years with high support additional needs. The late 1980s saw the Kindergarten Union introduce work based childcare, focused on providing child care for the children of large scale organisation’s employees. Work based child care continued to grow as the Kindergarten Union entered a new decade, with a second centre, for St George Building Society, opening in 1991, with many more following suit, including KU’s first Victorian centre, Emerald Hill.91, KU continued to respond to the ongoing need for inclusion based.

Alexandria, 1900s

The new millennium

The birth of a new millennium saw KU continue to be a dynamic and progressive organisation with the introduction of a number of inclusive services, as well as expansion into ACT, regional NSW and Victoria. Having established a strong reputation for inclusive educational practice, KU continued this focus through both mainstream centre based programs, as well as dedicated early intervention and outreach initiatives, such as Supported Playgroups and Family Programs In 2001, KU appointed an Indigenous Consultant to coordinate and encourage greater participation of Aboriginal children and families in KU and in 2006, became a provider of seven Inclusion Support Agencies in NSW. Shortly after, KU was selected to broker Commonwealth Government funding as the National Inclusion Support Subsidy Provider, providing support to every eligible long day care service in the country. In 2002, KU took the bold step of being the first early childhood organisation to appoint a dedicated Child Protection Officer, continuing a proactive approach to the wellbeing and protection of children within its services.

KU today

Today, KU remains at the forefront of early education, proving to be an innovator in curriculum and drawing on contemporary methods and research from around the world. Much has changed in Australian early education over the past 120 years, however many things have not changed at all. From the beginning, KU has believed in the value of play for young children and the importance of having specialised early childhood teachers and educators working with children and their families in the context of their communities. KU staff remain the very heart of KU – their expertise, continued commitment and passion towards providing the best early education experiences for young children and their families have remained a hallmark of the organisation since its inception. The KU of today is built on a great legacy, and stands proudly on the shoulders of the educators and innovators who have come before us, paving the way for those who will come after us. To find out more about the history of KU Children’s Services and early education in Australia, visit www.ku120.com.au.

Content adapted from ‘As the Twig Bends: 120 Years of Early Education’ researched and written by Frances Press and Sandie Wong.