Access to early childhood education in Australia
- Executive summary
- 1. Introduction
- 2. The provision of early childhood education in Australia
- 3. Methodology and data
- 4. Understanding "access" to early childhood education
- 5. Differential access to early childhood education
- 6. Types of early childhood education: Variation and parental decision-making
- 7. Summary and conclusion
- Appendix A: Access to and use of early childhood education and care services: An international overview
- Appendix B. Measuring access to early childhood education services
- Appendix C: Supplementary tables
- Appendix D: Analyses of parental decision-making
- Appendix E: Multivariate analyses
- Lists of tables and figures
4. Understanding "access" to early childhood education
This section explores how "access" to early childhood education services is defined, the factors that may affect access, and issues related to its measurement according to both the Australian and international literatures and from discussions with the key government and non-government stakeholders.
4.1 What is "access"?
The term "access" is often used in relation to the care and education of young children, but is often not clearly defined. In the context of the stated goals of the National Partnership, outlined in Section 1 of this report, "access", in its simplest form, can mean the opportunity to participate in ECE, among those families who would like their children to take part. At the most basic level, this can be interpreted as meaning that there are places available for all children whose families would like them. However, the goals of the National Partnership also highlight the importance of families having the freedom or ability to make use of ECE, as reflected in the focus placed on affordability, quality and participation rates within the National Partnership Agreement.
What is "access" according to key stakeholders?
A key question for the stakeholder consultations undertaken for the Access to Early Childhood Education Project was the way in which "access" was defined or conceptualised within the government jurisdictions or non-government organisations. The broad issues raised as part of the stakeholder discussions were similar in scope to those embedded within the National Partnership Agreement; that is, stakeholders generally described it in a multidimensional way, including the following components:
- creating opportunities for children to participate in ECE programs;
- providing enough time within the programs for children to learn; and
- allowing children to experience the program (and its potential benefits) fully.
The relationship between these components and the aims of the National Partnership Agreement, particularly for departmental officers, is not surprising given that they are working to implement the goals of universal access within their own jurisdictions. However, there was some variation that emerged in the discussions. To some extent, this was related to participants' own roles within their organisations (for example, people involved in managing and collecting data tended to be more focused on participation rates, while people from a practice background often saw the nature of children's experience as being at the core of access), as well as to what the core focus of their jurisdiction was at the time of discussions. Nevertheless, it is important to note that in all discussions, "access" was referred to in a multidimensional manner.
Not surprisingly, all officers from state and territory government departments involved in implementing the NP ECE, in the first instance described "access" as having enough places within the service system for all eligible children to be able to attend ECE programs:
Access is the ability for every child to go and access a program. That a place is available for each child. (Departmental officer)
There's an entitlement that any child … can access that year of education. (Departmental officer)
However, it was acknowledged that access was a more complex issue than simply providing a place:
Basically, if you live in [state], you have the entitlement to be able to access a preschool … We certainly acknowledge the difficulties here that all families can access, you know, are able to access preschool, but there's "access" and there's "access". But from the position of the [state] government, we're providing it to all children, should they want it. That's a very important point. (Departmental officer)
So in most discussions with stakeholders (government or otherwise), the ability to provide a place for children to enrol in early childhood education, was seen as the "starting point" for providing access:
Enrolments are our first starting point, basically, for determining the access to preschool programs. Another aspect that has to do with access is that we are targeting specific groups within the general population in terms of providing supply of preschool programs. (Departmental officer)
This notion of targeting specific groups to encourage participation was another issue frequently discussed by stakeholders. For many of the departmental officers, access was also being considered within their own jurisdictions in terms of who wasn't participating:
For the first part of universal access, we hit the mainstream, but now we are focusing on the more hard-to-reach groups. (Departmental officer)
Universal access is good for [state] because it gives us a chance to deal with some of the more fringe issues. (Departmental officer)
However, there was also general agreement among participants that some parents would ultimately choose never to make use of services, regardless of what was made available:
That is the aim, to maximise access, but … some parents may feel they have access - they can easily access a service, but they don't want to. (Departmental officer)
Subsection 4.2 provides a more detailed discussion of the characteristics that stakeholders reported were associated with lower levels of access to early childhood education.
For many of the departmental stakeholders, a key focus in the discussion about "access" was also the amount of time that children spent in an ECE program. Again, to some extent this was driven by the agreement under the NP ECE, in which providing "access" involves delivering access to programs for 15 hours per week. While on the whole this was viewed positively by participants, it was also seen as being potentially a risk to access by specific groups, such as younger children (specifically relating to 3-year-old kindergarten programs) and children with special needs:
It will certainly have an impact around supporting the inclusion of children with disabilities. I think that there will be a greater demand for resources to support their attendance for 15 hours. (Departmental officer)
A number of participants also extended the notion of access beyond examining participation rates and barriers to enrolments and attendance. They described the need to examine the extent to which children are able to fully experience the program they attend and be able to make the most of the benefits on offer:
What does "access" really mean? … I think we're talking about getting children in the door, but we're actually talking around what is meaningful participation. I think that is the key too. (Departmental officer)
Access is more than a place for every child. We understand that the place and the child need to be compatible. So where they're not compatible, we need to provide something a bit different. (Departmental officer)
Non-government stakeholders had less to say about the broader meanings of "access", as they tended to have a focus that reflected their more specific interests around barriers and particular groups. But some did provide some broader statements. Like those of the government stakeholders, these descriptions were multidimensional and took into account being able to both attend ECE programs and gain from the experience in a meaningful way:
Access can mean many things. The ability to get a child to preschool for working parents, the ability of a child to access the curriculum and the supports for them to do so … Being able to access a preschool that is within the community (religious or cultural) that they are a part of. (Service provider)
For optimal wellbeing, children and young people need to be actively engaged in learning, with a curriculum that meets their educational needs. Clearly, universal access (as defined by the NP Agreement) is an important, but minimum, first step. (Non-government stakeholder)
What is "access" according to the literature?
As was evident from discussions with the stakeholders, our review of the Australian and international literature found that "access" tends to be defined and conceptualised in a multidimensional manner.
At a minimum, such definitions usually involve a focus on creating opportunities for families and children to participate in ECE programs. However, providing access is usually acknowledged within the literature as going beyond simply having places available for children. For example, Press and Hayes, in 2001, described access to ECE as meaning that while "first and foremost places must be available; it must suit the family's needs in terms of location, hours available and the service provided; it must meet at least a minimum standard of quality; and it must be affordable" (p. 30).
Like the stakeholders interviewed for this project, the literature recognises that having enough places for all children to attend an ECE program does not mean that they will. For example, in his review for this project of early childhood education and care (ECEC) in OECD countries, Peter Moss (Appendix A) cited the OECD argument that "universal access does not necessarily entail achieving full coverage, as there are variations in demand for ECEC at different ages and in different family circumstances. Rather, it implies making access available to all children whose parents wish them to participate" (OECD, 2006, cited in Moss, Appendix A )
However, Moss (Appendix A) agreed with Press and Hayes that "to make access to ECEC a realistic option - services have to meet certain conditions. For example they need to be free or available at a price parents can afford … to provide an offer that parents need and want, in terms for example of quality, opening hours and type of provision. In sparsely populated areas they need to be physically available … Last but not least, ECEC services need to recognise and be responsive to the diversity of children and families and their needs".
Another section of the literature states that access to early childhood education should be a "citizenship right" for young children and their families (Petriwskyj, 2010). In this way of considering access, children's ability to participate in ECE and to experience its benefits is seen as a key part of their rights as citizens of the countries in which they live. In this context, creating programs that meet the needs of the children who attend them - to be "inclusive" - is seen as a basic right for children. A key part of this discussion, however, is whether this can be achieved by creating programs that can be inclusive of all children or whether more individualised and tailored programs need to be developed to meet different children's needs (Petriwskyj, 2010). Not all commentators see the notion of children as citizens as being useful for this debate, and they argue that to try and frame discourses around children's access to ECE does not take into account that children are not able to exercise their rights as citizens in the same ways in which adults can (both legally and practically) (Millei & Imre, 2009).
4.2 What factors affect access to early childhood education?
Taking into account both the literature and the consultations with stakeholders, it is clear that a key part of the "access" discussion involves the idea that not all children are able to make use of ECE equally; that is, there are factors that influence the extent to which different groups engage with ECE services, and there are a number of potential barriers that may affect children's and families' access to these services.
A number of factors affecting the participation of children in ECE that consistently emerged throughout the literature reviews and stakeholder consultations include:
- parents' preferences and beliefs;
- locational factors, such as remoteness and living in disadvantaged communities;
- the socio-economic status of families;
- the Indigenous status of families;
- whether children have a culturally and linguistically diverse background; and
- whether children experience disability or have special health care needs.
In line with these discussions, the literature and stakeholder discussions also identified a number of groups that were seen as being less likely to access ECE in the year before full-time school. These included:
- children from remote communities;
- children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds;
- children from Indigenous backgrounds;
- children from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB); and
- children experiencing disability or having special health care needs.
The findings from the literature review and stakeholder discussions for each of these factors and groups are provided below. These factors and groups also form the basis of the analyses of various datasets undertaken for the Access to Early Childhood Education Project. The findings from these analyses are reported on in Sections 5 and 6 of this report.
Parental decision-making and preferences
A strong theme in the discussions with stakeholders was that while governments can provide places that meet a broad range of families' needs, there would always be some families who would choose not to allow their children to participate in ECE. This reluctance on the part of families was sometimes seen by the stakeholders as being due to a lack of understanding of the potential benefits of ECE. Some participants were keen to find ways of better communicating these benefits to families; however, others felt there would always be a small group who believed that children should not be cared for by adults other than family members until they commenced full-time school.
Research around parental beliefs about the use of child care does support this latter view (Hand, 2005; Hand & Hughes, 2004; Holloway, 1998). In addition, the research has found that these concerns may be mitigated if parents feel that the programs offered fit with their own parenting beliefs, or are offered by providers who they see as supporting their own childrearing beliefs and practices (Holloway, 1998; Wise & Da Silva, 2007). This argument was also posited by Moss (Appendix A), who noted that "changing parental expectations and understandings of good parenting and a good childhood" can also affect demand from parents for ECEC, as does "a high level of parental satisfaction with well developed and accessible" systems of ECEC.
A key issue for many of the jurisdictions was the provision of ECE for children living in remote locations. More remote regions are, by definition, further away from the larger service centres and so when services are required, travelling distances can be large. In itself, this is likely to affect rates of access to ECE, and consultations with stakeholders frequently raised the challenges of service provision in remote areas. This was often discussed in terms of distances to be travelled; however, it was also acknowledged that as remoteness increases, population density declines, and because of the sparser distribution of the population, smaller numbers of services can be funded to meet the needs of families in those areas, again potentially increasing the distances families need to travel. Conversely, if the program is delivered closer to home, it may decrease the potential for children to experience the more social aspects of ECE if there are no other children of the same age available to participate.
The availability of suitably qualified and experienced staff is also an ongoing issue for remote area service provision. Attracting and retaining staff to remote services was a key concern for many stakeholders and, as recorded in other research, it was noted that even where ECE teachers were available to provide programs, ongoing turnover of staff had the potential to diminish quality, as "in these communities, there is little consistency or knowledge of local families and children" (Walker, 2004, p. 39).
It is likely, then, that families in remote areas may have more difficulty in accessing a high-quality ECE service within a reasonable distance from their home.
Socio-economic status of families
A key concern for participants in the stakeholder discussions was the engagement of families who live in disadvantaged areas or experience socio-economic disadvantage. Stakeholders from both government and non-government sectors reported that children from low socio-economic backgrounds continue to be under-represented in ECE. This was seen to be a result of a number of factors, including issues relating to costs (real or perceived), a lack of awareness of available services or the benefits of ECE, and the "interference" of other factors that co-exist with financial disadvantage, such as parental physical and/or mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems and poor experiences of education. Other potential barriers for this group included parents having a lack of access to transport, having poor English language skills and not feeling welcome by the services available to them.
Local area disadvantage is increasingly being seen by government as an important factor in the ways in which families are able to interact with services (Hayes, Gray, & Edwards, 2008). A lack of local services, poor transport options and concerns about safety can be barriers to people accessing locally provided services (Hand, Gray, Higgins, Lohoar, & Deblaquiere, 2011). Qualitative research suggests that even where local services can be physically accessed, families living in disadvantaged areas may choose not to engage with local services for a number of reasons, such as concerns about quality and not wanting to engage with other local residents (Hand et al., 2011). In the context of education services, some parents may actively choose to make use of services outside of the area in which they live to try and expose their children to what they believe to be a more positive peer group (Hand et al., 2011).
Across Australia, the socio-economic status of regions can be measured with respect to the levels of income and employment of people living in those regions. This is commonly done using an index of the socio-economic advantage or disadvantage of the region (Trewin, 2004). In regions in which residents have more resources, this may flow through to them having better resourced services available. In contrast, when residents have relatively low levels of personal income or employment, services may be more limited, or perhaps may not include the quality of services that can be found in better resourced areas. That being said, it is also possible that more disadvantaged regions may have a range of services that specifically cater to the needs of disadvantaged families; for example, ECE programs that target more vulnerable families. Further, and as discussed above, residents may draw upon services outside the local area, in which case using a measure of local area advantage or disadvantage may not be a strong predictor of levels of access to services.
Using an index of the socio-economic advantage or disadvantage of the region, previous research has shown that children living in more disadvantaged regions have lower levels of access to ECE (Harrison et al., 2009).
In more disadvantaged regions, it is also expected that there will be a higher proportion of families experiencing financial hardship and joblessness and having lower levels of parental education (Hayes et al., 2008). Single-parent families and families with a non-English speaking background are also more likely to be living in financially disadvantaged regions than are couple-parent families and families from mainly English-speaking backgrounds (Hand et al., 2011; Hayes et al., 2008). Therefore, lower rates of access to ECE in more disadvantaged regions may be related to there being a higher proportion of families in these areas experiencing barriers to ECE, or for other reasons, being less likely to take up opportunities for ECE.
That some regions can be identified as having a higher level of disadvantage means that services in a region - including ECE - can be targeted to address take-up and retention by the harder-to-reach or more vulnerable families who are likely to be living in those regions. As mentioned above, this place-based approach is increasingly being seen as an important way of engaging families experiencing disadvantage.
There are numerous issues woven together here when we consider characteristics such as these. For one thing, there are likely to be strong associations between these factors. For example, low income is likely to be experienced by jobless families, single-parent families, and families with relatively low levels of education. The issues faced by more disadvantaged families may be varied, including the following:
- low income may affect the affordability of services or costs of transport;
- low education levels may affect knowledge of services and awareness of the value of ECE for children;
- joblessness may mean parents are home to care for their children, and this may be viewed in some families as being preferable to having non-parental care; and
- previous experiences with accessing services may lead parents to have negative views about service use.
In families with very low levels of parental employment, financial concerns (as discussed above) may influence parents in regard to children's early education (Elliott, 2006). Also, when parents are not in employment, this usually means they are available to care for their children at home, and this may act as a deterrent to parents accessing ECE programs. In some cases, as discussed earlier, this may also reflect a belief that non-parental care is not appropriate for young children (Hand, 2005).
It is also relevant to note that parental employment is likely to increase parents' needs for care for their children, and in particular may mean a need for regular, long hours of care. This is particularly relevant when considering the type of ECE that children use, but also means that children of employed primary carers are more likely to be in some type of ECE compared to those of not-employed primary carers. This need to juggle parental employment and accessing ECE was also acknowledged as an issue for many parents during the stakeholder discussions, with participants acknowledging that traditional preschool hours created some challenges for working parents and that ECE delivered within a long day care setting could be a more practical option for these parents.
Single parents and their children are considered to be vulnerable to adverse outcomes, given that indicators of family and child wellbeing often show poorer outcomes in these families. For example, children living in single-parent, as compared to couple-parent families, are likely to differ on a range of family circumstances; for example, being at greater risk of being in a family that has financial hardships, living in a socio-economically disadvantaged area, and having a parent with relatively low education (Gray & Baxter, 2012). Such differences may matter more than the fact that the child is parented by one rather than two resident parents. Putting aside issues of socio-economic disadvantage, however, there does not appear to be strong evidence of ECE participation being any lower for single-parent compared to couple-parent families. The stakeholder discussions did not highlight any particular issues for single-parent families.
It is important to note, though, that having poorer socio-economic status does not always entail poorer outcomes for children. Parents from a wide range of circumstances, including those in low-income families or communities, who are without employment or without a partner will nevertheless seek out opportunities for ECE for their children. For some, this may reflect a strong desire for their children to have good opportunities for learning or to improve their life chances beyond their own (Hand et al., 2011) Therefore, it is important to be aware that the association between socio-economic status and ECE is a complex one.
Indigenous children and families
Previous research has shown that children of Indigenous backgrounds have lower levels of participation in ECE than those of non-Indigenous background (Biddle, 2007), and the need to address access for Indigenous children has frequently been identified (e.g., Mann, Knight, & Thomson, 2011). Targets regarding Indigenous children's access to ECE are in place and various ECE programs have been developed with the aim of addressing the needs of Indigenous children and families (Shepherd & Walker, 2008; Trudgett & Grace, 2011).
The relatively low rates of participation by Indigenous children in ECE are related, in part, to the characteristics of their families, with higher percentages of Indigenous families than non-Indigenous families having lower incomes, having lower levels of parental education and living in more remote areas of Australia. The issues are, however, more complex than this. As noted by Shepherd and Walker (2008):
Indigenous communities that are functioning well are characterised by families who are engaged in their children's early development, including the development of cultural identity and resilience. However, there is evidence to suggest that many Indigenous families are disengaged from their children's educational progress. For many Indigenous families this may be the result of their own poor experiences at school - experiences marred by racism and a lack of respect for Indigenous people and culture. As a result, many Indigenous families do not have the capacity to support their children's learning nor sufficient trust in, or understanding of, education systems. (p. 19)
For Indigenous children, particular problems arise in retaining these children in ECE and having them attend regularly. As noted by Trudgett and Grace (2011), the enrolment of Indigenous children is not such a great problem, but attendance is. This is evident in higher absentee rates for Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous children in preschools (DEEWR, 2009).
The literature points to a number of factors that are of particular relevance to ECE for Indigenous children (e.g., Mann et al., 2011; Walker, 2004). For example, based on a small-scale study of eight preschools funded under the Supporting Children with Additional Needs (SCAN) program, Mann et al. concluded:
The research affirmed that staff, environment and atmosphere needs to be welcoming in the initial stages of developing culturally inclusive services. It also affirmed that in the long term, much more is required to sustain relationships with Aboriginal families, and provide a curriculum that supports culture and equitable learning opportunities. Ideally Aboriginal children should have specific services, with qualified Aboriginal teachers and staff that develop a teaching program to meet cultural law and practices, and equip children to meet the dominant educational norms. (p. 3)
These researchers provided detailed information on the characteristics that were commonly found among preschools that had a high rate of access by Indigenous children.
Walker (2004) raised the following issues:
- the remoteness of areas in which many Indigenous children live being characterised by lower levels of availability of preschool programs;
- staff working in these areas not being sufficiently qualified and/or being inexperienced, with no long-term experience working in that program;
- Indigenous staff with appropriate qualifications or skills being especially difficult to find and retain;
- programs not addressing cultural issues adequately;
- infrastructure being a problem in relation to adequate and appropriate space, resources and equipment;
- funding issues affecting the matters above; and
- transport being a central concern.
In a study by Trudgett and Grace (2011), "trust" was seen as a significant factor.
Promoting the participation of Indigenous children in ECE programs was a key theme in all stakeholder discussions. Stakeholders highlighted these same issues and acknowledged that the provision of services that were welcoming and culturally appropriate were key goals across the different jurisdictions. Providing flexibility to meet the needs of Indigenous families who may be geographically mobile was seen as important by a number of stakeholders. A key concern was also the need to build trust with families where parents themselves may have had poor experiences of education services as children, and may be reluctant to expose their own children to such negative experiences.
Culturally and linguistically diverse families
Lower rates of participation by children from culturally and linguistically diverse families have previously been observed (ABS, 2009; Walker, 2004). For example, using the 2008 CEaCS, the ABS (2009) reported that of 3-5 year old children, the percentage in preschool (or a preschool program in an LDC) who spoke English as their main language was 73%, compared with 60% for those who mainly spoke a language other than English at home.
In discussing the situation in Victoria, Walker (2004) noted:
Children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are less likely to access preschool because of the fee structure and lack of understanding about preschool education. A number of submissions raised these issues and highlighted that families in poverty, families who have recently arrived in Australia, families where English is not their first language, often do not understand the Victorian system of preschool and school. Assumptions are sometimes made that if preschool is not part of school, then it isn't important. At times, there are other priorities for families, particularly those living in low socioeconomic areas or in poverty. (p. 28)
The characteristics of families are likely to vary according to whether children have a non-English speaking background, with socio-economically disadvantaged families more highly represented in these families. As such, families may be faced with barriers related to income as well as language, and perhaps concerns about the cultural appropriateness of services. These issues are discussed by Warr (2007), who undertook research on how one early learning centre approached promoting participation in preschool education in a relatively disadvantaged area (the area had a large population of people born overseas, high levels of unemployment and rated poorly on other indicators of disadvantage).
Discussions with key stakeholders provided similar insights into the participation of children from CALD backgrounds in ECE services. Participants generally noted that children from CALD backgrounds were at risk of lower rates of participation in ECE programs. In part, this was seen to be related to language and cultural barriers; however, children from more recently arrived communities in Australia, particularly refugee families, were seen to be more at risk than those from more established communities of not attending or having less positive experiences of ECE programs because of issues of language and culture. Parents from more recently established migrant groups were also seen to have less knowledge of the services available to them and the potential benefits of ECE programs.
Children with disabilities or special health care needs
Participation in ECE may be difficult for children with disabilities or special health care needs if parents are seeking a place in a program that can attend to the special needs of their child.
Previous research has highlighted the difficulties in accessing high-quality ECE by children with special needs (Walker, 2004). This applies not only to finding a program that the child may attend, but also applies to the ability for these children to fully participate in the program. This particularly relates to the availability of appropriate staff and the ability of staff to effectively engage with individual children given the number of children in a particular program.
Interestingly, stakeholders were least likely to discuss children with disabilities or special health care needs when discussing access issues. However, it was noted that preschools may provide opportunities to identify the special needs or health care issues of children prior to their starting school. Where preschools are well linked up with other services, this can mean children are referred to health care or other specialists; hence, the preschool experience and its associated early learning programs may be just one aspect of how access to ECE can be beneficial to children and families.
4.3 What issues are reported in the measurement of access?
There are a number of issues that are important in being able to accurately measure access. In part these issues are related to the multidimensional nature of access and the difficulty in being able to identify and engage with those who are not making use of ECE to the same extent as with those who are. These issues were often discussed by government stakeholders in the context of measuring access.
In Australia, the issue of being able to measure access by children to ECE in the year prior to full-time schooling is further complicated by the diversity of the service systems that are in place, both within and between jurisdictions, as well as the variation in ages at which children commence school and the different terminology that is used in reference to ECE programs for children in the year prior to full-time schooling.
This has been acknowledged elsewhere by a number of Australian commentators (e.g., Dowling & O'Malley, 2009; Elliott, 2006; McEwin & Ryan, 2008). For example, Elliott noted that:
Gaining an accurate overall picture of early childhood services and participation is difficult, however, as there are no centralised or national processes to measure or record supply and capacity, children's attendance, staffing and quality, or education and developmental inputs or outcomes … The lack of a common starting age across Australia further complicates the picture. State-based comparisons are difficult to make as children start school at different ages, so they start or finish preschool … at different ages. (pp. 8-9)
Consultations with departmental stakeholders also involved some discussion of measurement issues. The key issues for stakeholders included:
- being able to measure access across multiple sectors;
- knowing when children were accessing more than one program (double-counting);
- identifying how many children were not accessing programs; and
- knowing who these children were.
These stakeholders expressed support for moving to a more uniform measurement across jurisdictions, acknowledging that the complexity of systems posed a significant barrier for accurately measuring participation. In particular, gaining data from privately operated programs (particularly early learning centres and long day care centres) was challenging and often meant relying in Commonwealth statistics:
We did a piece of work a few years ago looking for that missing [proportion of children who were not attending ECE] and through that work found that a significant proportion of that group were getting an early childhood program but in a LDC setting that wasn't funded for kindergarten, so they were getting a program but it wouldn't be one necessarily delivered by a teacher. It's not that they weren't engaged with the early childhood system, but just not with [state-funded ECE]. (Departmental officer)
Many of the government stakeholders were keen for the 2011 Australian Census population figures to become available as it was becoming increasingly difficult to estimate the size of the population of children eligible to take part in ECE under the National Partnership Agreement each year using 2006 Census figures. The relatively high mobility of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families also means that in some jurisdictions it is hard to identify and track the usage of ECE by eligible Indigenous children within the population, so other sources, such as maternal and child health services, have to be used.
Some participants also noted that in their experience not all Indigenous families identify their children as Indigenous when they first engage with the ECE system, sometimes waiting until their children are older. This creates some challenges in the measurement of the participation of Indigenous children:
There's the issue of Indigenous children being identified at kindergarten. That's a problem. Because there's a much lower identification in the early years, and it increases as the children get older. [Interviewer: So the parents are not identifying their children as Indigenous?] … That's right. (Departmental officer)
Measurement issues also apply when attempting to use survey data to analyse participation in early childhood education. One difficulty is in identifying those children who are in the year before full-time school; that is, those who are eligible for ECE in the context of the NP ECE.5 The other is in identifying those children who are receiving ECE, and the type of ECE they receive.
With respect to who is eligible for ECE, complications arise because:
- the age at which children are in the year before full-time schooling, and therefore eligible to attend preschool, varies from state to state, given that school entry eligibility varies across jurisdictions;
- exact child age in months is needed (and the survey date), along with state identifiers, to determine whether children are eligible to start school the following year; and
- even with this information, in assessing whether children are in the year before full-time school, it is problematic to base this entirely on the children's age since parents may elect to delay their child's entry into full-time schooling (Edwards et al., 2011), such that children who are eligible to attend school the following year may actually not start school until one year later.
In relation to who is receiving ECE, and the types of ECE, key issues are:
- The use of different nomenclature for preschool and for the first year of school across the states can cause difficulties for interviewers and/or respondents when capturing information about children's participation in ECE.
- Some children receive their preschool education through long day care, such that the line between child care and ECE can be blurred. Some parents may not be aware of whether their child receives a preschool program in LDC, while some parents may find it difficult to say whether their child attends a preschool as opposed to a child care centre.
- Some children attend preschools attached to schools, and these children may be misreported as attending school when they are in fact in preschool, or as not attending any prior early childhood education/care before starting in school.
- Given the above, parent-reported information may be somewhat unreliable. (This has implications also for AEDI, which is reported by teachers, but based on information provided by parents when enrolling their child in school.)
Measurement issues in relation to the specific datasets used in this report are discussed in Appendix B.
5 While some children are entitled to ECE two years before full-time school, this report focuses on measuring access to ECE in the year before full-time school.