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Early years investment needed

Kindergarten children laughing
Credit: iStock.com/atCamera

A report into the current state of Australia’s early learning and care sector, including preschool, kindy, long day care and family care, has found significant improvements in quality, but that Australia needs to invest more in its youngest citizens.

The State of Early Learning in Australia 2017 is published by Early Learning: Everyone Benefits, a campaign supported by a national coalition of early childhood and parent peak bodies, providers, community organisations and individuals.

While it found Australia has lagged behind comparable countries in terms of quality early education over recent decades, the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood has proven to be a significant turning point, according to the study.

The report released in late last year, found the investment from governments to provide all Australian children with access to 600 hours of preschool education in the year before full-time school has paid off enormously.

High-quality, developmentally appropriate early education prior to school must be a core component of national investment to secure the health, wellbeing and education of our children and to secure positive futures for them and for the country.
State of Early Learning in Australia 2017

The report did however point out that despite the progress more work is required.

“91 per cent of children were enrolled in preschool for more than 600 hours per year in 2015, significantly up from just 12 per cent in 2008, prior to the National Partnership Agreement,” the report states. 

“This shows what can be achieved when Commonwealth, state and territory governments work together. Despite this progress, there is still much more to do.

“The participation of three-year-olds in early learning in Australia is lagging behind the rest of the developed world. Research indicates that two years of a high quality preschool program delivers better outcomes than one year, especially for children who are developmentally vulnerable. 

“Now is the time to not only continue the commitment to universal access for preschool programs in the year before school, but extend that access to high-quality, age-appropriate and play-based early education programs for three-year-olds.”

In Australia, research shows a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and developmental vulnerability at the start of school. 

The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) indicates that one in five children start school developmentally vulnerable; however, this number increases to two in five for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

In the AEDC results, children who score in the lowest 10 per cent are classified as ‘developmentally vulnerable’. 

The report points out that the growing gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged children, in both learning and wellbeing, creates significant challenges for an education system already struggling to reduce the gap in achievement. 

Unequal access to early education and a difficult transition into primary school also contributes to increased risks of early disengagement from school and reduced wellbeing. Research has also found that starting school behind can have lifelong consequences.

The State of Early Learning in Australia 2017 urges Australia as a country that values education and has the resources to invest in the early years, to do more to overcome disadvantage.

“Quality early learning helps all children develop the skills they need for lifelong learning and a successful transition to school, regardless of their background or family circumstances,” the report says.

“The growing gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged children, in both learning and wellbeing creates significant challenges for an education system already struggling to reduce the gap in achievement. 

“Unequal access to early education and a difficult transition into primary school also contributes to increased risks of early disengagement from school and reduced wellbeing.

“High-quality, developmentally appropriate early education prior to school must be a core component of national investment to secure the health, wellbeing and education of our children and to secure positive futures for them and for the country.”

State of Early Learning in Australia Snapshot1

Child development

  • The Australian Early Development Census (2016) data shows that in 2015 one in five Australian children were vulnerable in one or more key areas of development.
  • Two in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were vulnerable in one or more key areas of development.
  • Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more than twice as likely to be developmentally vulnerable at the start of school.
  • The effect of disadvantage is evident across all key areas of development, and is not changing over time.
  • Overall there has been little change in the proportion of developmentally vulnerable Australian children since 2009.

Participation

Across Australia in 2015:

  • 35 per cent of children aged birth to two years participated in early education and care
  • 62 per cent of three-year-olds participated in early education and care
  • 89 per cent of four-years-olds are enrolled in preschool.

International comparisons:

  • Australia ranks below the OECD average for the participation of three-year-olds in ECEC.
  • Australia also ranks below the OECD average for the participation of four-year-olds in ECEC, though has had the fastest growth of any OECD country over the past decade.

1 State of early Learning In Australia 2017. http://www.mitchellinstitute.org.au/announcements/state-of-early-learning-in-australia/