Access to early childhood education in Australia

Research Report No. 24 – April 2013

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Executive summary

The Access to Early Childhood Education project

On 29 November 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education (NP ECE). This agreement committed the Commonwealth and all state and territory governments to achieving universal access to preschool by 2013. As part of this National Partnership, it was acknowledged that high-quality information is an essential component of the COAG Early Childhood Reform Agenda to ensure an evidence base for policy and program development.

The Access to Early Childhood Education (AECE) project was undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) on behalf of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) to explore access to early childhood education (ECE) in the context of the NP ECE. There were three key components to the project:

  • a conceptual analysis of what "access" means, according to Australian and international literature and key stakeholders;
  • consideration of issues around measuring access and how it may be better measured in the future; and
  • examination of the factors that affect access to early childhood education for Australian families, especially in relation to vulnerable or at-risk groups of children.

The undertaking of these project objectives broadly entailed the following methods:

  • a review of the Australian and international literatures;
  • consultation with key government and non-government stakeholders across Australia; and
  • analyses of national datasets from the National Survey of Parents' Child Care Choices (NSPCCC), 2009; the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), 2008; the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI), 2009; and the Childhood Education and Care Survey (CEaCS), 2008.

This research has focused on exploring early childhood education for children, specifically those in the year prior to full-time schooling.

The literature reviews and consultations were important in addressing each of the three key components of the projects. The analysis of survey data provided insights into issues concerning measurement of access, but was particularly valuable for the third of the components, on factors that affect access to ECE. Results from each of the methodologies are woven together in the sections that follow, summarising the key findings for each component of the study. However, before interpreting the results it is prudent to first consider the context of ECE in Australia.

Early childhood education in Australia

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. The complexity and diversity is apparent if we consider that ECE services are provided through kindergartens, stand-alone preschools, long day care (LDC) settings and early learning centres, as well as preschool programs within the independent school sector.

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. 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.

Taking account of the variation of settings within which ECE is offered across Australia was an important factor in understanding the findings of the AECE project. In particular, the complexity of ECE in Australia has implications for the measurement of access. The extent to which different settings might affect access to ECE is an important issue, and this is discussed below, when considering the question of whether (and why) some children are missing out on ECE.

The meaning of "access" to early childhood education

One of the components of the AECE project was in relation to establishing the meaning of "access" to early childhood education. Views of key stakeholders were sought regarding what they perceived "access" to early childhood education to be. The literature regarding the meaning of "access" was reviewed, particularly in the context of early childhood education. Together, this information confirmed that there is widespread agreement that "access" to ECE is a multidimensional concept, encompassing more than just the number or proportion of children enrolled in ECE.

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.

In other words, being able to provide a place for children to enrol in ECE is 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. The Australian and international literature 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 needs to be considered in terms of the experience of attending the program being of benefit to children. That is, the program needs to be of high quality, accessible and delivered in such a way that the child is able to fully experience the potential benefits of ECE.

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 the NP ECE. This, of course, provides challenges when attempts to measure a more completely defined concept are attempted, as discussed in the next subsection.

Measuring "access" to early childhood education

The second component of this project related to the measurement of access to early childhood education. Broadly, there were two sets of issues:

  • measurement issues related to the simplest aspect of access - that of participation or enrolment in ECE; and
  • whether or not, and how, to incorporate the multidimensional nature of "access" into the measurement.

Access measured by participation or enrolment

Several difficulties in measuring access to ECE in terms of participation were identified in this report, and were evident in the analyses of survey data. Difficulties were clearly documented in the existing literature and were also described by the various government and non-government stakeholders in our consultations. In fact, we found that measurement issues are keenly felt at the operational level, with some stakeholders feeling that they lack full information about the extent to which children - and children with particular characteristics - might be missing out on ECE in their region.

The key issues affecting measurement of participation or enrolment in ECE for children in the year prior to full-time schooling that were identified in the AECE project include the following:

  • The diversity of ECE systems across Australia and the different nomenclature used for preschool and the first year of school across the states caused some initial difficulties, especially in the surveys, in the collection of accurate data on children's participation in ECE. For example, some parents may not have been aware of whether their child received a preschool program in LDC, while some parents may have found it difficult to say whether their child attended a preschool as opposed to a child care centre. If ECE was delivered in a school setting, this could likewise have been misreported as the children being in school rather than ECE.
  • Related to this, the variation in school starting age caused difficulties in identifying the population eligible for ECE. This is due to differences across jurisdictions in the age at which children commence full-time school, and from children being able to commence school one year after they are eligible to start.
  • The diversity of service providers also adds complexity and challenges to the collection and analyses of administrative data. The availability of multiple service providers for ECE can pose challenges for those relying on administrative data, as children may be double-counted if they attend more than one program.
  • Survey data (such as those from the national collections used in this report) are usually not useful for analyses of local area or regional patterns of ECE participation, given sample sizes do not allow disaggregation to small areas. Administrators and service providers require information about ECE participation as it applies to their region or local area.
  • Information on ECE enrolment allows examination of the characteristics of those who enrol, but obviously not the details of children who have not enrolled. 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 in identifying potentially eligible populations, but these data become out-of-date between Census years (with gaps of up to five years).

Despite the measurement difficulties and limitations, in this report we have shown that survey data can provide some insights into ECE in Australia, at least at the broader state/territory and national levels. Participation rates have the advantage of being easily understood and easily compared over jurisdictions and time. Compared to more sophisticated measures, such figures are 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. This was evident in this report in the divergence of some of findings across different datasets - particularly so when examining participation rates within particular states and territories of Australia. For this reason, we did not remark on these differences in this report. These divergent findings highlight that it is important to be mindful of the limitations of the data that are currently available when using these data for decision-making.

A multidimensional measure of access to early childhood education?

Clearly, focusing only on participation misses out on the multidimensionality of the concept of "access", as this disregards dimensions such as the hours and quality of children's experiences of an 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 a week, and receiving ECE for 15 hours per week or more. 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 a dimension of 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 the 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 that are a consequence of the way in which ECE is delivered in Australia.

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. However, consideration of the multidimensionality of access can still be acknowledged. The 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.

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.

As noted above, in the analyses of participation in ECE, we found that each dataset portrayed a different story with regard to participation rates across states and territories, and so we have not focused on those differences. 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.

In the data analyses, a range of characteristics was examined to cover local area variation (remoteness and socio-economic disadvantage of regions), socio-economic characteristics of families (parental income, employment, single- versus couple-parent families, parental education); and other characteristics, including Indigenous background of families, non-English speaking background (NESB) of families, and children with special health needs. These characteristics were included in the analyses as they reflected some of the key factors referred to in the literature and the consultations as being potentially able to identify children who were missing out on ECE.

Which children are missing out on ECE?

The analyses 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 that there tended to be 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.


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, could be extremely valuable for providing greater insights into the other aspects of access. No doubt, service providers and other stakeholders 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.