Access to early childhood education in Australia

Research Report No. 24 – April 2013

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1. Introduction

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 agreement, the following core objectives were outlined in clauses 17-19 of the NP ECE (COAG, 2008):

17. The universal access commitment is that by 2013 every child will have access to a preschool program in the 12 months prior to full-time schooling. The preschool program is to be delivered by a four year university qualified early childhood teacher, in accordance with a national early years learning framework, for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year. It will be accessible across a diversity of settings, in a form that meets the needs of parents and in a manner that ensures cost does not present a barrier to access. Reasonable transitional arrangements - including potentially beyond 2013 - are needed to implement the commitment to preschool program delivery by four year university qualified early childhood teachers, as agreed in the bilateral agreements.

18. Especially for the first two years of implementing universal access (2009 and 2010), national priorities include: increasing participation rates, particularly for Indigenous and disadvantaged children; increasing program hours; ensuring cost is not a barrier to access; strengthening program quality and consistency; and fostering service integration and coordination across stand-alone preschool and child care. The strategies for addressing these priorities may differ on a state-by-state basis.

19. Children living in remote Indigenous communities have been identified as a specific focus for universal access, with the Prime Minister announcing as part of his Sorry Day address that by 2013 every Indigenous four year old in a remote community be enrolled and attending a preschool program. This reflects the significant under-representation of Indigenous children in preschool programs. (pp. 5-6)

As part of this National Partnership, it has been 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. To inform this evidence base, there is a need to undertake research on how to define and measure "access" in order to better inform and assess the progress of the NP ECE.

1.1 The benefits of early childhood education for children

The key principles driving the NP ECE involve the benefits of providing universal access to early childhood education, as set out in clauses 6-8 of the agreement (COAG, 2008):

6. Early childhood is a critical time in human development. There is now comprehensive research that shows that experiences children have in the early years of life set neurological and biological pathways that can have life-long impacts on health, learning and behaviour. There is also compelling international evidence about the returns on investment in early childhood services for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, including the work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman.

7. On average, children in Australia have good outcomes overall. The outcomes for some children however are poor and the gap is widening. Early childhood services, policies and practices in Australia have not benefited from a national focus and are therefore quite fragmented. This can be problematic for some families and particularly for those families with multiple and complex vulnerabilities, who may find it difficult to access and navigate fragmented services. It also makes it difficult to advance prevention-orientated and early intervention approaches for all children and to coordinate services for those with complex problems.

8. High quality early childhood services offer the productivity benefits of giving children the best possible start in life, and for parents, the opportunity to be active participants in the workforce or community life. (pp. 3-4)

These principles are based on an extensive international literature about the benefits of early childhood education for children prior to full-time schooling, and a detailed review of this literature was recently published as part of the 2010 annual progress report for the evaluation of the National Partnership (Urbis Social Policy, 2011).

High-quality early childhood education experiences are seen to have the potential to benefit all children in terms of their cognitive and social development, with higher quality programs having a higher positive effect on these dimensions (Urbis Social Policy, 2011; Wise, Da Silva, Webster, & Sanson, 2005). Participation in early childhood education programs has also been found to "improve school readiness, expressive and receptive language and positive behaviour for all children" (Urbis Social Policy, 2011, p. 30). For children from "disadvantaged" families, the link between quality programs and outcomes is even more pronounced, with "high quality education and care [offering] a direct strategy for maximising developmental outcomes, especially for young children from vulnerable families" (Urbis Social Policy, 2011, p. 29).

Similar syntheses of the research findings about the potential benefits of ECE have also been found in other reviews (Elliott, 2006; Press & Hayes, 2001).

1.2 Measuring access to early childhood education in Australia

Defining and measuring access to early childhood education is central to developing early childhood policies. As part of ongoing bilateral arrangements under the NP ECE, states and territories provide jurisdictional annual reports to the Commonwealth Government that inform on their progress towards achieving universal access against six NP ECE performance indicators. These include the proportion of children enrolled in (and attending, where possible to measure) a preschool program; the number of teachers delivering preschool programs who are four-year university-trained and qualified in early childhood education; hours per week of children's attendance; weekly cost per child (after subsidies); and the proportion of disadvantaged children, including Indigenous children, enrolled in (and attending) a preschool program (where possible to measure). While the Commonwealth and states and territories continue to work together to bring these reports into alignment, the diversity found across the different states and territories around the ways in which preschool programs are delivered, and the ages at which children participate in these programs, provide ongoing challenges. This is particularly the case when considering national datasets that seek to measure participation and outcomes, particularly for different groups within this cohort.

The data available suggest that a proportion of young children are not participating in preschool programs and therefore missing out on its potential benefits. Developing a better understanding of this group - that is, who is not participating in preschool programs and why - will help inform future early childhood policy and link with achieving universal access for all children. As noted above, this is seen to be particularly important for children from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds, where there is strong evidence that the delivery of a high-quality early childhood education program in the year before full-time schooling is vital in providing a solid foundation for future learning and development.

The Access to Early Childhood Education Project

The Access to Early Childhood Education (AECE) Project has been undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies on behalf of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR)1 to explore the question of what "access" to ECE means and how it could be measured. The research involved a number of methodologies, including a review of Australian and international literature; consultations across Australia with key stakeholders from both government departments involved in the implementation of the NP ECE and non-government agencies concerned with the education and wellbeing of young children; and analyses of key Australian datasets that provide information about the participation of children in ECE in the year prior to full-time schooling.

There are 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
  • analyses of several key datasets to examine the factors that affect access to early childhood education for Australian families, especially in relation to vulnerable or at-risk groups of children.

To explore these factors, the report examines a range of child, family and regional characteristics to identify those groups of children most likely to be missing out on ECE. Analyses of parental decision-making concerning ECE are also included, to help inform on why particular groups of children may not be receiving ECE.

The report commences in Section 2 with a brief overview of how ECE is delivered in Australia, followed in Section 3 by a detailed description of the methodologies employed in the AECE Project. Section 4 then considers the meaning of the term "access", and discusses the various characteristics expected to be associated with variations in levels of access to ECE, as well as issues related to the measurement of such access. Section 5 presents the first set of data analyses, focusing on how overall access to ECE varies for children with different characteristics. Section 6 presents the second set of data analyses, with a view to explaining the variation in the types of ECE in which children participate. Finally, Section 7 presents a conclusion to the report.


1 The research project was commissioned by DEEWR on behalf of the Early Childhood Data Sub Group (ECDSG), which works to implement the National Information Agreement on Early Childhood Education and Care (NIA ECEC). The NIA ECEC outlines an agreed work program, which includes the administration of projects funded from the overall allocation of $3 million retained annually for national early childhood research, evaluation and data development activities.