Australia’s three‐year‐olds participation in early learning is below OECD average

The Early Learning Everyone Benefits campaign has a clear end goal – for all Australian children to have access to at least two days of quality early learning. In particular, the campaign wants to see 100 per cent of four year olds (currently 99 per cent) attending early learning for 15 hours per week or more, and increase participation of three year olds from 66 per cent to 90 per cent by 2020. New Zealand and UK are providing free access to early learning for both three-and four-year-olds for 20-30 hours a week and reaping the benefits with soaring participation rates. However, as ECA CEO Sam Page explained, Australian governments and policies must keep pace to improve childcare affordability, and in turn, support increased participation rates of children enrolling in early learning programs. “Taking inadequate action and policies that aren’t keeping pace with the challenges to early learning in Australia, such as affordability, can bring unintended consequences,” Ms Page said. “If parents are unable to afford to send their children to early learning, the result will be early learning participation rates going backwards and that is not good for Australia and our society.”

She said Australia’s participation rate of three year olds enrolled in early learning – only two-thirds or 62 per cent according to the most recent ABS data – was way below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of about 74 per cent.

“Australia is doing very poorly in getting three-year-olds enrolled in early learning, yet we don’t need to look far for inspiration, New Zealand has 96 per cent of their three year olds enrolled and UK has 97 per cent.

Australia is doing really well on participation of four-yearolds however.

“Over the past five years, the participation rate of four-year-olds in Australia enrolled in early learning the year before school, such as Preschool and Kindergarten, has increased from 67 per cent to about 99 per cent.”

“It’s no coincidence that this is the same period that the Federal Government introduced the Universal Access Agreement which subsidises all children in the year before school (mostly four year olds) to attend 15 hours of early learning per week.” Australian studies show that children who attend a high quality early childhood program in the year before school are up to 40 per cent ahead of their peers by the time they reach Year Three.

A recent study by the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University report, Preschool—Two Years Are Better Than One, highlighted the substantial benefits children receive from access to two years of early learning before school. The study recommended two years of quality preschool would give children the best chance to thrive at school and later in life. Ms Page urged Australian governments and policy makers to better recognise the valuable role of quality early learning and take action.

“Government needs to place a high priority on ensuring that all Australian children access quality early learning for at least two years before starting school, with an understanding that this needs to be age-appropriate play-based early learning.”

“Building on the success of the Universal Access Agreement for enrolment of four year olds in early learning, one immediate way Australia can improve our enrolment of three year olds is to extend the Universal Access agreement so that it covers the two years before school.”

Why participation rates matter

According to the 2015 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC), one in five Australian children are starting school developmentally vulnerable.

“These children may have difficulties with learning, concentration in class, and managing their emotions and behaviour which lead many children to remain illiterate or be suspended for ‘uncontrollable behaviour’,” Ms Page said.

She said if children start behind, they are highly likely to stay behind and the best way to help these children succeed in school was to get in early and address their needs in an early learning setting.

Long-term benefits of early learning

Ms Page said studies show the long term benefits include – more children able to learn and participate in school for longer, fewer children dropping out of school, increased literacy, reduced unemployment and homelessness.

“It will even impact on reduced crime. Our whole society benefits from more well-adjusted adults contributing taxes and being good parents, and reduced spending on welfare and the criminal justice system,” she said.

“In the UK Longitudinal studies like the Effective Preschool, Primary & Secondary Education study found that children who attended quality early learning had higher grades at school, were better able to manage their behaviour and had lower levels of hyperactivity. The longer they spent in pre-school and the higher the quality of early learning, the better their grades were, and the more likely children were to continue on an academic pathway.

“According to OECD analysis, 15-year-old students who attended early childhood education (ECE) tend to perform better on Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), than those who did not, even after accounting for their socio-economic backgrounds. There is some concern that Australian students’ education performance is declining in comparison with students from other countries, for example as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).”