Access to early childhood education in Australia

Research Report No. 24 – April 2013

2. The provision of early childhood education in Australia

Since the 2008 COAG commitment that by 2013 "all children in the year before full-time schooling will have access to high quality early childhood education programs delivered by degree-qualified early childhood teachers, for 15 hours per week, 40 weeks of the year, in public, private and community-based preschools and child care" (Dowling & O'Malley, 2009), the delivery of early childhood education in Australia has undergone significant change.

In this report, we focus on the provision of ECE to children in the year prior to full-time schooling. This mainly involves children aged 4 years old; however, as discussed below, this is affected to some extent by the variation in school starting ages across the different states and territories (see also Edwards, Taylor, & Fiorini, 2011).

2.1 Models of early childhood education delivery

Reflecting the federal system of government in Australia, the delivery of early childhood education services is undertaken by the state and territory governments. Furthermore, many local governments are also involved in the provision of such services, and the result of this division of powers and responsibilities is a great deal of variation in the way in which ECE is provided (Press & Hayes, 2001).

The current system of delivery of early childhood education within and across the different states and territories is complex and multifaceted, with services being provided in a mix of contexts, including kindergartens, stand-alone preschools, long day care (LDC) settings, early learning centres, and preschool programs within the independent school sector. These services are also delivered through a variety of different "providers" that involve "complex layers and connections between government, voluntary and church groups, public education systems, independent, Catholic and other religious schools, community organisations, free-market forces, small business owner-operators and major commercial childcare companies, plus of course families and children" (Elliott, 2006, p. 1).

While a mix of service provision exists within all of the states and territories, two major, distinct models can be derived (Dowling & O'Malley, 2009). The first is one where ECE is primarily funded and delivered by government, and the second is where the government subsidises ECE but the service is primarily delivered by non-government agencies. These two models broadly have the characteristics summarised in Table 1.

In the Australian context, while no state or territory system fits wholly within one or other of these models, it has been argued that the provision of ECE in South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory sits more within the first model (government-funded and delivered) and New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have a model of service delivery that is more like the second model (where government subsidises services that are delivered by other agencies) (Dowling & O'Malley, 2009; Urbis Social Policy, 2011). However, as Dowling and O'Malley (2009) pointed out, all jurisdictions involve a "mix of the two and the reality is more complex than the models suggest" (p. 4). For example, private providers operate within states that are primarily model 1 and some government-run preschools operate in model 2 states, such as New South Wales.

Table 1: Models of early childhood education delivery in Australia, 2009
Model 1: Government model Model 2: Non-government model
  • The state/territory government owns, funds and delivers the majority of preschool services.
  • Preschools are treated in much the same way as primary and secondary schools.
  • The jurisdiction may provide supplementary funding to preschools, but generally not to preschools in long day care centres, because they attract Commonwealth funding through the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate.
  • The jurisdiction owns 70-90% of preschools.
  • The state government subsidises preschool services that are provided by non-government organisations.
  • Preschools in long day care centres charge some fees and attract Commonwealth funding through the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Tax Rebate.
  • The government owns fewer than 20% of preschools, and these are generally targeted at disadvantaged communities, in contrast to government schools, which are comprehensive.

Source: Urbis Social Policy (2011), p. 91

There is also significant diversity in what ECE services in the year prior to children commencing full-time schooling are called across the different states and territories. For example, "kindergarten" is used in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania; "preschool" in New South Wales, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory; and both "kindergarten" and "preschool" in Victoria and South Australia.

The age at which children participate in ECE in the year prior to commencing full-time school also varies between the jurisdictions, reflecting the different school starting ages between the states and territories. Table 2 provides a summary of the different characteristics of ECE across the jurisdictions, and also provides some additional details about the different ways in which it is delivered.

Table 2: Characteristics of models of early childhood education, by jurisdiction, 2009
Jurisdiction Year before full-time schooling First year of full-time schooling Characteristics of model
NSW Name Preschool Kindergarten Non-government model. Mixed system, with most programs provided by LDC services and community preschools, and regulated by the NSW Department of Community Services. Also 100 preschools are attached to primary schools and administered by the Department of Education and Training.
Age 4 years by 31 July 5 years by 31 July
Vic. Name Kindergarten Preparatory Non-government model. Mixed system, with programs provided by LDC services, community facilities, children's hubs and schools. Most services are run by local governments and businesses. ECE is funded by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Requires teachers with ECE qualifications in addition to tertiary degrees.
Age 4 years by 30 April 5 years by 30 April
Qld Name Kindergarten Preparatory Non-government model. ECE is primarily provided by community providers and regulated and funded by the Department of Education, Training and the Arts.
Age 4 years by 30 June 5 years by 30 June
SA Name Kindergarten Reception Government model. A number of preschools are staffed and funded by the education department and integrated with or linked to schools. Requires teachers with ECE qualifications in addition to tertiary degrees. Government-provided preschool education is free, with a voluntary levy.
Age 4th birthday 5th birthday
WA Name Kindergarten Pre-primary Government model. A number of preschools are staffed and funded by the education department and integrated with or linked to schools. Requires teachers with ECE qualifications in addition to tertiary degrees. Government-provided preschool education is free, with a voluntary levy.
Age 4 years by 30 June 5 years by 30 June
Tas. Name Kindergarten Preparatory Government model. A number of preschools are staffed and funded by the education department and integrated with or linked to schools. Government-provided preschool education is free, with a voluntary levy.
Age 4 years by 1 January 5 years by 1 January
NT Name Preschool Transition Government model. A number of preschools are staffed and funded by the education department and integrated with or linked to schools. Government-provided preschool education is free, with a voluntary levy.
Age 4th birthday 5 years by 30 June
ACT Name Preschool Kindergarten Government model. A number of preschools are staffed and funded by the education department and integrated with or linked to schools. Requires teachers with ECE qualifications in addition to tertiary degrees. Government-provided preschool education is free, with a voluntary levy.
Age 4 years by 30 April 5 years by 30 April

Source: Urbis Social Policy (2011), in particular, pp. 90-91

2.2 Participation in early childhood education

Enrolment rates for children in ECE in the year prior to full-time schooling are provided by the states and territories in the NP ECE annual reports for 2010.2 Table 3 shows the enrolment rates and proportions of children enrolled in ECE programs for each state, as well as the proportions of children enrolled in a program where at least 15 hours per week is available. Given the diversity of the systems of ECE operating in the different jurisdictions, and the different starting points for each of the states and territories at the beginning of the NP ECE, the enrolment rates are still somewhat varied across states. However, all jurisdictions reported positive progress in regard to meeting the targets of the National Partnership.

Table 3: Enrolment rates in early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling, state and territory reports, 2010
Jurisdiction Enrolment rates in all ECE programs (%) Enrolment rates in ECE programs where at least 15 hours per week available (%)
NSW 86.2 41
Vic. 99.9 18.4
Qld 40 55
SA 87.7 28.8
WA 97.5 26.2
Tas. 97 33.4
NT 88.4 36
ACT 95.4 27.2

Note: Figures have been presented here with and without decimal places - as they were presented in the original documents. Note that state/territory estimates are not derived using a consistent methodology.
Source: NP ECE annual reports (2010). The figures in this table are drawn from the annual reports for the 2010 calendar year provided by each of the states and territories about their progress with NP ECE targets. See footnote 2.

Reflecting the diversity of service provision within all of the states and territories, issues around accurately measuring and tracking progress against the performance indicators were indicated to some extent in almost all of the 2010 annual reports. Key issues shared across some of the jurisdictions included:

  • concerns about the quality of the baseline measures;
  • the variable quality of population estimates used for calculating proportions of children participating in ECE (particularly when small age and geographic cohorts were involved); and
  • difficulties in accessing comparable data across different service contexts in terms of both the measures used and the timing of measures.

Footnotes

2 Annual reports about the progress of the NP ECE are provided by each of the state and territory governments. The individual reports are available from the DEEWR website at <www.deewr.gov.au/Earlychildhood/Policy_Agenda/ECUA/Pages/annualreports.aspx>.