Government must boost attendance rates in early education

Megan O’Connell, Victoria University; Bronwyn Hinz, Victoria University; Hannah Cole, Victoria University, and Stacey Fox, Victoria University

Early childhood is one of the most important areas in Australian education. But according to a new report:

  • nearly five years after the National Quality Standards were introduced, one-quarter of services have not been assessed. Of those that have, one-third are not meeting minimum standards;
  • more than 60,000 children start school with poor social skills and emotional wellbeing, and can experience behavioural problems throughout their school years; and
  • the learning and wellbeing gap between the wealthiest and poorest children is widening.

More targeted investment

There is a mismatch between Australia’s investment priorities and our opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children.

We know that access to high-quality early education can change children’s learning trajectories. Yet one in three Australian children do not attend early education for the hours needed to make a difference.

The children most likely to benefit from quality early education are the most likely to miss out.

Five key changes are needed to improve access to high-quality early education to set all children up for a lifetime of learning.

Universal access

All children should be able to participate in a high-quality preschool program in the year before school – regardless of whether their parents are working or can afford it – in the same way that all children have a right to attend school.

Access to preschool should be a legislated entitlement that all children hold, as is the case in many OECD countries, including New Zealand, the United Kingdom and most of Europe.

Australia has done a good job in accelerating access to preschool education. Currently, 96% are enrolled, but 68% don’t attend for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year. Every state and territory takes a different approach to funding and delivery.

Short-term funding agreements for preschool make it hard to boost attendance rates. Governments must make a permanent commitment to funding universal access for all four year olds, in the year before they start school.

Australia also has low levels of participation in early education for three-year-olds, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the most to gain

We must build on the work we have done to extend access for four-year-olds to make sure three-year-olds also have access to developmentally appropriate early learning.

Children who received two years of quality early education perform better at school, with children experiencing disadvantage benefiting the most.

Highest quality for the children with the greatest need

We also need to invest in and scale up evidence-based, high-intensity programs for the most vulnerable children, targeting communities scoring in the bottom 10% in the Australian Early Development Census in each state and territory.

Current policy settings are not working to reduce the impact of disadvantage on children’s outcomes. Data from the Australian Early Development Census shows a strong and persistent correlation between socio-economic status and developmental vulnerability.

Programs in low SES areas that include vulnerable children “should be model programs of the highest quality”.

But this is not always the case. Some children require additional investment and support to reach their potential.

Improve quality of early education

Children only benefit from early education when it is high quality .

Australia’s National Quality Framework provides the foundations for making sure all children are able to experience a high-quality learning environment.

Currently, one-quarter of services have not yet been assessed. One-third of those who have been assessed are still working towards meeting the National Quality Standard.

Breakdown of service assessment ratings as at December 31, 2015.

The quality area that services are struggling with the most is offering a high-quality and developmentally appropriate educational program.

We need to ramp up levels of quality across the sector. All services should be required and supported to meet or exceed the National Quality Standard by mid-2017 at the latest.

National data strategy

For governments and services to make good decisions about where their investment can have the greatest impact, we need clear and consistent data.

The Productivity Commission Inquiry into the Education Evidence Base is welcome, and should inform a national early childhood data strategy.

We must establish the information infrastructure needed to drive policy and practice improvement into the future.

Recognising the importance of early education

All families and communities need to understand the importance of children’s learning in the early years.

There are substantial differences between the way education experts and Australian families understand child development and early learning.

In particular, while experts see early education as a critical site of development and learning, families often see child care primarily as a place where children are looked after safely while they work or study.

A national campaign is needed to highlight just how important quality early education is for kids, not only for helping parents to work.

Parents’ preferences and beliefs about children’s learning influence their decisions about whether or not to enrol their children in early education.

High-quality early education is one of the most effective tools we have for changing children’s trajectories and making sure all children are ready to flourish in and beyond school.

By not extending educational opportunity equally to all children we are missing out on chances to maximise their potential.

This has long-term consequences for the future productivity and prosperity of our nation.

Megan O’Connell, Policy Program Director, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University; Bronwyn Hinz, Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University; Hannah Cole, Policy Analyst, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University, and Stacey Fox, Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

4 thoughts on “Government must boost attendance rates in early education”

    Anne Kennedy says:

    The EC professionals I worked with today agreed that there needs to be greater commitment and investment in the education and care of children prior to formal school. They were also very disappointed with some of the ‘expert opinions’ that The Age newspaper quoted in response to the Mitchell Institute report. To say that the focus in ECEC is about teaching children their colours and how to write their name reduces the work of educators to being a
    technician and fails to acknowledge the significant inequities that children bring to our services that need to be addressed before we can be worried about if they can write their name or not.

    Ayesha MacEwan says:

    I find it very worrying that a quarter of services have never been assessed under the NQF. At least with the older assessment system administered by NCAC,all services got regular visits and clear goals to work towards. The NQF is probably intrinsically better, but it’s useless if services are not even receiving an initial assessment, far less the regular re-assessments that were indicated when the new system was launched. Good services benefit from outside validation of their practice and poorer ones need the support (and maybe the threat of loss of funding/parent approval). Our small children deserve real quality; it is the best investment we can make.

    Sue Patrick says:

    I work in a disadvantaged area of Melbourne and agree with the areas of concern. The Melbourne Age newspaper had an article in Tuesday’s paper which was to me was politically motivated and made it sound as though all kindergarten educators are poorly qualified and not offering quality programs. It is not the fault of services that a third of centres in Australia have not yet been assessed. Our kindergarten was assessed in February 2016 and we received an exceeding rating in all seven areas. There are problems within early childhood education. The first being the lack of appropriate financial support for kindergartens and childcare centres. The support for children with special needs appears to be more difficult to obtain than previously with increasing amount of paper work eg children with autism etc and the length of time to gain diagnosis and then the follow through funding, often not received before the child leaves kindergarten. Working in a disadvantaged area has its own problems such as homelessness, a transient population, affording food on the table, refugee families including families who have come out of detention and many families to whom English is a second language and therefore have difficulty coping with government departments or enrolling at kindergarten. The benefits to the community should three year old subsided kindergarten be introduced would help to address some of the problems we face. The recognizing of the importance of early childhood education amongst families in disadvantaged areas would also help support children to reach social and emotional maturity, build resilience and have a safe learning environment; with community support would raise the outcomes for children. Then maybe educators could spent more time in face to face and one on one time with children to benefit their long term educational outcomes.

    Sandra Pope says:

    I agree that all children should have access to free Pre-Prep education! However there is a great lack of enthusiasm from many parents about enrolling their Kindergarten age children into child care because of perceived costs. In actual fact by the time parents have received CCB plus CCR their fees are greatly reduced especially those parents on low incomes! For the cost of a packet of cigarettes/carton of beer/hair highlights/false nails etc. a child could have two to three days in Family Day Care or Kindergartens!

    I am a qualified Teacher ( B.Ed Early Childhood) offering a kindergarten programme to Pre-Prep children….I have one special needs child and two other children enrolled…I have no grumbles from parents about fees as they appreciate the early education that their children are getting!

    I feel that the the media has to take some responsibility for the way Child Care is perceived by continually failing to ask parents about the true costs of their children’s care. A single working parent might say ” It costs me $500 a week for childcare” when in actual fact they pay only $250 out of their own pocket to the childcare organisation and the Govt pay the rest! However, I adamantly support their demand for less costly child care as $250 a week may mean they have to cut back in other areas in order to maintain a job in which they may only earn $550 a week! Wake up Australia..we are already so far behind in the Education stakes! Either provide Pre-Prep Education free or raise the school starting age as they have in many countries in Europe, all of whom have a far superior record in Education than we do in Australia!

    I would estimate that over the 25 years I have been involved with Pre-prep children, more that fifty percent would have not been developmentally ready for school (especially boys) This places a great strain on the children themselves and on both Pre- Prep and Prep Teachers

    In closing I would raise the issue of rates of pay for Early Childhood Educators in Childcare, Family Day Care and Kindergartens. While the pay rates remain low staffing will not consist of highly educated people..why would they take on the responsibility of caring for young children, working long hours, lots of unpaid overtime, sometimes difficult parents and often challenging children when they could earn more working as a cleaner or checkout operator! These staff are those to whom parents entrust their most precious possession, their child! Surely their dedication and committement must be rewarded. For myself I will retire in a couple of years time…with very little superannuation due to working in a low paid
    industry therefore will be forced to exist on just my pension! Future Educators must be paid more if they are to accumulate a superannuation comparable to other workers!

    Thankyou for this opportunity to voice my opinion!

    Kind Regards

    Sandra Pope
    Wise Owl Kindergarten
    Cedar Vale

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