Access to early childhood education in Australia

Research Report No. 24 – April 2013

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7. Summary and conclusion

The Access to Early Childhood Education project has examined ECE in the context of the NP ECE, in order to explore the meaning of "access" to ECE, the measurement of "access" and whether (and why) some children, in the year prior to full-time schooling, may be missing out on ECE. The project has drawn on multiple sources - utilising information from the Australian and international literatures, combined with accounts from key stakeholders and national datasets - to explore these issues in the context of the Australian ECE system.

The complexity and diversity of settings within which ECE is offered across Australia is an important factor in understanding the findings of the Access to Early Childhood Education project. ECE programs in Australia tend to be delivered along two broad models of ECE - one a predominantly government model and the other a predominantly non-government model. In the former, it is more typical for ECE to be accessed through standalone preschools or preschools attached to schools. Preschool is often free (with a voluntary levy) under this model. In the latter, there is more diversity in the arrangements, with LDC also playing a significant role, and costs tending to be higher (Urbis, 2011). The eastern states of NSW, Victoria and Queensland generally are more closely aligned with the non-government model, with the other states/territories looking more like the government model. Understanding the different ways in which ECE is delivered across the states and territories is a key factor in understanding the complexities of the meanings and measurement of access in the Australian context.

7.1 The meaning of "access" to early childhood education

The research clearly shows that "access" to ECE encompasses more than just the number or proportion of children enrolled in ECE. In this project, the multidimensionality of ECE was apparent in the stakeholder discussions and in the Australian as well as international literature.

The stakeholder discussions identified the following components of "access":

  • 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.

That is, being able to provide a place for children to enrol in ECE was the first step toward access. Whether availability of places translates into enrolment in places is likely to depend on the characteristics of the services that offer those places and on the preferences of parents of children who are eligible to attend these services. In particular, the Australian literature (reviewed in this report) and the international literature (as summarised by Moss, Appendix A) have identified factors such as cost, quality, opening hours, physical location and the responsiveness of services to meeting diverse child and family needs as being important to families.

The aspect of time, when raised by stakeholders as one part of the "access" concept, may to some extent reflect that under the NP ECE, access to ECE involves providing programs to children for 15 hours per week.

Beyond the idea of children simply being present at a service for enough time in the year prior to full-time schooling, there was also acknowledgement in both the stakeholder discussions and the literature that access also needs to be considered in terms of the experience of attending the program being of benefit to children. That is, that the program is of high quality, accessible and delivered in such a way that the child is able to fully experience the potential benefits of ECE.

The stakeholder discussions and literature, in addressing issues of access, also focused on the non-participation in ECE by some children. These issues included concerns regarding the enrolment and then continuing (and regular) attendance by some children - often those in more vulnerable families or communities. We will return to this further below.

In summary, this component of the project found that "access" to ECE is multidimensional, both conceptually and in practice, which supports the broader goals of NP ECE. This, of course, provides challenges when attempting to measure a more completely defined concept, as discussed in the next subsection.

7.2 Measuring "access" to early childhood education

Throughout this report, a number of difficulties in measuring access to ECE have been discussed. Broadly, there were two key issues. One related to the difficulties of measuring "access" using a relatively simple measure of participation, as has been done in this report. The other related to whether or not, and how, to incorporate the multidimensionality of "access" into the measurement.

Access measured by participation or enrolment

Several difficulties in measuring access to ECE in terms of participation in ECE were identified in this report, and were evident in the analyses of survey data. Such difficulties were described by the various government and non-government stakeholders in our consultations, and were clearly documented in the existing literature. Here we will summarise the key issues facing measurement of access to ECE in the context of the NP ECE.

As in our own analyses in this report, access is often examined in fairly simple terms - as participation (or enrolment) in ECE. This measure of participation has the advantage of being easily understood and easily compared over jurisdictions and time. Compared to more sophisticated measures, it is also relatively easy to derive from existing datasets. There are, however, still challenges that mean even these estimates are not as exact as might be needed.

A very significant challenge in measuring access to ECE in Australia lies in the diversity of ECE systems across Australia. An initial challenge is that there is different nomenclature used for preschool and for the first year of school across the states. This can cause difficulties for interviewers and/or respondents when capturing information about children's participation in ECE in surveys (and also the Australian Census).

Another key issue is that the age at which children are to commence full-time school varies across jurisdictions. Further, there is some discretion around the age at which children start school, such that some children who are, according to their age, eligible to be in full-time school, may be held back to start the following year. Regarding measurement of access to ECE, this causes difficulties in identifying the population eligible for ECE.

Furthermore, as we have already discussed, in the eastern states, the model of ECE tends to involve the provision of ECE through long day care, as well as through standalone preschools. This more diverse range of options for ECE services can complicate the collection and interpretation of survey data on ECE participation. For example, 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. This diversity of service providers adds complexity and challenges to the collection and analyses of administrative data also.

When the delivery of ECE is more uniform, as it is when aligned more with the government model, some issues still remain. For example, one issue is whether in survey data, children are correctly identified as being in school versus preschool when they are attending a preschool program in a school.

There is also a challenge that applies to all jurisdictions, in administrative data, that children may be double-counted if they attend more than one program. As data in this report demonstrate, a considerable number of children across the jurisdictions attended a combination of preschool and long day care.

Measurement issues are keenly felt at the operational level. While survey data offer the potential to study which children are, and are not, participating in ECE, this information may be of less value to administrators and service providers, who require information about ECE participation as it applies to their region or local area. For analyses of participation in ECE, stakeholders make use of their enrolment information, which allows examination of the characteristics of those who enrol. However, what these data do not include is, obviously, details of children who are not enrolling. This, then, limits the potential to study factors related to children missing out on ECE in that area or jurisdiction. Australian Census data can be helpful to identify potentially eligible populations, but these data become out-of-date between Census years (with gaps of up to five years).

To summarise, then, in line with many who have reported on the topic of ECE in Australia in the past, this component of the AECE project highlighted a range of difficulties related to the measurement of access to ECE, even when measured simply in terms of participation. Survey data can provide some insights, as we have seen in this report; however, to undertake these analyses there were several challenges. The divergence of some of the findings across different datasets highlights how important it is to be mindful of the limitations of the data that are currently available when using them for decision-making.

Nevertheless, despite the measurement difficulties and limitations, in this report we have shown that analysing participation in ECE using survey data can provide some insights, at least at the broader state/territory and national levels. The participation rates used in this report, like enrolment rates, have the advantage of being easily understood and easily compared over jurisdictions and time.

A multidimensional measure of access to early childhood education?

Focusing only on participation misses out on the multidimensionality of the concept of "access", as this disregards other dimensions, such as differences in hours of ECE and the quality of children's experience of the ECE program. Conceptually, it would be relatively simple to extend the notion of participation, as used in this report, to incorporate the dimension of time - to classify children, for example, as receiving no ECE, some ECE but fewer than 15 hours per week, and receiving ECE for 15 hours or more per week. In practice, there are likely to be challenges, especially for children who receive ECE across more than one program, and those who may vary their hours of ECE from week to week.

Adding in the other dimension to reflect the quality of the ECE experience for children is immensely more challenging. It may be possible to identify to what extent children are receiving their ECE from appropriately trained educators; however, in surveys, parents may be unaware of these details. Again, it would be difficult to capture instances of children receiving ECE from multiple providers. Of course, the qualification of the educator is just one indicator of the likely quality of the ECE experience. It is, however, not clear how other indicators could be captured to reflect individual children's experience within a program; for example, compared to other children, those with special needs and from culturally diverse or disadvantaged backgrounds may gain different experiences and benefits from an otherwise high-quality program.

These analyses have led us to the view that it is useful to measure access, in the first instance, in terms of participation or enrolment, which allows examination of how access varies across time, across jurisdictions and across different socio-economic groups. This, however, needs to be done carefully, being mindful of the data issues and limitations. Until access can be measured well in this simple way, it will be difficult to draw in the other dimensions that have been highlighted in this report.

Consideration of the multidimensionality of access can still be acknowledged. This information about participation or enrolment could be supplemented with other more detailed, and perhaps qualitative information, to inform on these different aspects of access and provide more depth to the overall quantitative data.

7.3 Which children are missing out, and why?

In this component of the AECE project, we drew upon the views of stakeholders, the literature, and new analyses of three main datasets (AEDI, NSPCCC and LSAC), to explore which characteristics of children, families or regions might predict lower levels of access to ECE. These data analyses focused on access in terms of participation in ECE, for children in the year before full-time school. Children were considered to be in ECE if they were in either preschool or long day care. Any participation in LDC was counted as ECE, regardless of whether parents reported that their children had a preschool program as part of LDC. It was felt that any LDC for children of this age was likely to involve a structured program, and would be expected to have some component of early learning built in. Also, the decision to include any LDC as ECE was partly due to data quality concerns about the distinction between LDC with and without preschool programs.

Some analyses of the types of ECE used was also included, with a view to understanding whether there were particular gaps in the use of some types of services by those children who were potentially at risk of missing out on ECE. The CEaCS was also used in the analyses of parental decision-making around ECE participation.

We were cognisant that the different models of delivery of ECE might affect the levels of participation in ECE. However, the various data sources referred to here (including reports produced by jurisdictions, as well as our own analyses) did not present a consistent story at the state and territory level. We have therefore not attempted to make general remarks about the differences in participation rates across states and territories. However, the variation in types of ECE clearly reflected the state/territory differences in ECE delivery, showing up the greater reliance on LDC in the eastern states than in other states. In all states/territories, though, there was a significant proportion of children in both preschool and LDC.

Which children are missing out on ECE?

The analyses presented here confirmed the expectations of the stakeholders and also the findings reported in the literature that children missing out on ECE are more often represented among disadvantaged families, and among children who are perhaps in greatest need of ECE in respect of preparing children for school. The groups of children who stood out in these analyses as being less likely to be participating in ECE were Indigenous children and children from NESB families. Children from socio-economically disadvantaged families were also less likely to participate in ECE than those from socio-economically advantaged families. Children living in remote areas had the lowest levels of participation in ECE compared to those living in major city areas. There was also some variation according to the disadvantage of regions, but it was not clear that this reflected the characteristics of the regions or the families living within those regions.

We did find more variation in participation in ECE by these characteristics in the eastern states - the states in which ECE is more often provided through LDC. That is, there were greater differences in participation between the least and most vulnerable children in the eastern states than in the other states.

The factors driving the differences in ECE participation are not all easy to identify, given the overlapping nature of many of the characteristics we have examined. For example, compared to non-Indigenous children, Indigenous children are more likely to be living in socio-economically disadvantaged families and in remote regions, so their lower participation rates may be affected by all or any of these factors. Also, the analysis is complicated by the distinction between preschool and child care. In particular, parental employment is likely to be strongly linked with a need for child care. Decisions about child care versus preschool for some families, are expected to be associated with parental employment factors, as well as the availability of different care and ECE options.

Why do some children miss out on ECE?

This question proved particularly difficult to answer within the scope of this research project, and we could not provide any definite answers. As discussed below, understanding reasons for non-participation would be best explored with a different research methodology.

With one of the differences in the models of delivery of ECE being the cost of services, an important question is to what extent cost (or perceived cost) of services affects access to ECE for more vulnerable or disadvantaged families. Issues of costs or availability to ECE were sometimes referred to by parents when they were asked why their children were not in ECE. However, parents were most likely to say their children were not in ECE because of reasons related to the availability of a parent to care for children, or related to a belief in parental care of children. This suggests some degree of choice being exercised by these parents, but it warrants further attention, preferably with a different research methodology that would allow the decision-making process to be explored more fully. This would be particularly useful in regard to more disadvantaged and vulnerable families.

The analyses of parental decision-making and types of ECE provide some insights into the various factors parents take into account when choosing ECE for their child. While some clear patterns emerge from some of these data, they need to be interpreted cautiously. For example, these analyses show that for children attending LDC only, the most common response parents provided as the reason for choosing this arrangement was to accommodate work and study commitments. Where children were attending a preschool-only program, however, the most common reasons provided focused on social and intellectual development. However, this does not mean that parents choosing only LDC don't value their child's development - it may be that they are also taking these factors into account when choosing ECE for their child.

Most of the findings presented here were consistent with expectations, although some suggest that further research may be useful in helping disentangle how different factors affect family decision-making regarding child participation in ECE. In particular, more research on factors related to family income, employment and parental education levels, and how they intersect with decisions about ECE would help in understanding the issues for more vulnerable families. If such research also took into account the availability of different types of ECE in the local area, it would be useful for examining how the supply of different services affects the decision-making of parents.

7.4 Conclusion

Returning to the broader focus of this project, we have presented the view that access to ECE should be considered as being multidimensional. This is important because participation or enrolment should not be seen as the end point and the intended goals of ECE need to be built into the concept of access.

However, in terms of measurement, this research suggests that it is important to address, as far as is possible, issues regarding the simplest measures of access - those of participation or enrolment - before attempting to incorporate other dimensions of access into the measures used. A simple measure of participation or enrolment is a useful starting point for monitoring trends and comparisons across groups. Even with some measurement difficulties, this report has highlighted the value of such measures in identifying some characteristics that are related to lower rates of access to ECE. To supplement this, more qualitative information, captured through one-off or occasional studies at regional (or national) levels, would be valuable for providing greater insights into the other aspects of access. Service providers and other stakeholders may also have available to them other ways of capturing some of the other dimensions of access that can be useful at the program level. Use of measures of participation or enrolment, along with this supplementary information, allows the multifaceted nature of access to be recognised without attempting the collection of new information, which is likely to come with its own set of very challenging measurement issues.

Another important part of this paper was using the information that we have to examine to what extent, and why, certain children are missing out on ECE. These analyses have identified that there are some risk factors and, consistent with prior research, we have found that more vulnerable and disadvantaged families are more likely to miss out on ECE. The picture is complicated, though, in part because of the interplay between preschool and long day care, and how parental choice of such services for children will also depend on parents' employment arrangements.

The most difficult aspect of this research, then, is "why" some children miss out on ECE. Existing data do not really delve into this question sufficiently to be able to understand to what extent non-participation is related more to choice or to constraints of parents. In the preceding section, we already discussed some of the limitations of what we know about parents' decision-making in this regard. Gaining greater insights into the reasons for children's non-participation in ECE, as well as the experiences of children who do go, would be of considerable value. Such insights may need to be sought in a less structured format than is imposed through the questionnaires used in these analyses. More detailed discussions with parents may help to identify what the real barriers are for those not attending ECE and what factors are important within an ECE setting for their children to be able to fully experience the program.