Access to early childhood education in Australia

Research Report No. 24 – April 2013

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6. Types of early childhood education: Variation and parental decision-making

This section explores the types of ECE that children attend, how these types of ECE vary across the range of factors examined in Section 5, and also, some reports by parents regarding preferences and reasons associated with their choice of ECE provider. The purpose of this is to help us understand how these are linked, overall, to differences in levels of access to ECE.

Earlier sections of this report have highlighted the complexity of the Australian system of ECE. While the analyses here cannot represent this complexity fully, given the data limitations (in terms of sample sizes as well as the availability of reliable information on types of ECE), these analyses specifically consider to what extent children participate in ECE through preschools or through LDCs, or a combination of these. Some state-level analyses are included, given that very significant state-level differences exist in relation to the delivery of ECE across Australia (see Section 2 in particular).

As in Section 5, before presenting the information on characteristics of families and regions by type of ECE, the first subsection provides some analyses of information relating to parental decision-making and type of ECE provider, which may contribute to understanding the findings presented later in this section.

6.1 Reasons for choosing types of early childhood education provider

Many factors may affect parents' decisions about ECE or child care providers. This section reports on information provided in LSAC (B cohort, Wave 3), NSPCCC and CEaCS, as these data sources provide some insights into the decision-making process regarding ECE participation. However, given the survey collection methodology of each (which did not allow for detailed probing of this process), they are unlikely to give the depth of information that could be gained with qualitative research.

Table 20 shows LSAC data on parents' responses when asked for their main reason for their child attending child care or preschool ("What is the main reason the Study Child is regularly attending [main program]?"). Note this information refers to the main program the child attends. "Good for child's social development/to mix with other children" was the most common reason given overall, and the most common reason for those whose child was in preschool. Parents' work or study was more frequently cited as a reason for those children in child care only and, to a lesser extent, for children in a preschool program in LDC. When the preschool was attached to a school, parents were somewhat more likely to say that "good for child's intellectual or language development" was the main reason for their attendance in that program, compared to children in other programs.

Table 20: Main reason for choosing program for children in early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling, by program type, parents' reports, LSAC
  Child care only (%) Preschool in LDC (%) Preschool in school (%) Preschool not in school (%) Total (%)
Parent's work or study commitments 68.5 46.5 3.2 4.8 22.5
Good for child's social development/to mix with other children 25.0 43.4 54.6 74.7 56.7
Good for child's intellectual or language development 5.6 7.8 36.9 17.7 17.8
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Sample size 464 474 596 1,271 2,805

Note: Other response categories not shown were "Parent's sport, shopping, social or community activities" (< 1%), "Give parent a break or time alone" (< 1%) and "Other" (2%). Includes children not yet in school whose parents report they are to start full-time schooling next year.

Source: LSAC (2008)

Parents in the NSPCCC were asked why they had chosen their particular main care/ECE provider for children in the year before full-time schooling.6 Table 21 shows the range of reasons offered. The most commonly cited reasons relate to the qualities of the staff (friendly and caring) and the physical attributes of the centre. Significant proportions also referred to the quality or reputation of the centre, the location of the centre or the provision of a formal structure or learning program. Various other reasons were also selected.

Table 21: Reasons for choosing main care/preschool provider for children in early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling, by program type, parents' reports, NSPCCC
  LDC only (%) Preschool in LDC (%) Non-government preschool (%) Government preschool (%) Total (%)
Friendly/caring staff 54.3 43.1 42.4 37.4 41.9
Physical attributes of the centre 51.4 48.5 31.7 31.4 38.3
Quality/reputation of care 25.3 28.6 31.5 32.5 30.5
Location of the centre 27.9 25.2 24.6 37.7 29.7
Having a formal structure or early learning program 19.9 26.7 35.7 27.6 29.0
Good feeling in the centre 15.3 14.5 20.4 18.3 17.4
Staff qualifications 17.0 11.8 7.5 11.0 10.8
Affiliation of centre 2.5 9.0 14.1 5.4 8.6
Staff-to-child ratio 10.3 10.6 9.5 5.6 8.6
Staff experience 4.1 6.5 6.8 7.8 6.8
Social interaction with other children 3.8 3.4 7.4 6.5 5.6
Opening hours 2.1 6.3 7.4 2.7 5.0
Cost 5.4 5.1 3.5 4.4 4.5
Support for child's special needs or requirements 4.3 2.1 3.8 4.0 3.4
Childs happiness/progress/comfort 3.2 2.9 2.9 1.0 2.3
Availability - only choice available 0.3 0.6 1.5 3.0 1.7
Children's activities offered by centre 3.7 0.9 1.8 1.5 1.6
Communication between centre and parents - 2.3 0.6 0.7 1.1
None of these 2.9 0.4 0.4 0.6 0.7
Other 17.3 9.9 9.8 7.5 9.7
Sample size 91 289 311 561 1,252

Note: Respondents could give multiple responses, so percentages add to more than 100.

Source: NSPCCC (2009)

There were some differences in reported reasons according to the type of provider; for example, for children in LDC without a preschool program, friendly/caring staff was referred to more often than for other care types. For government preschools, the location of the centre was more commonly reported compared to other care types. Having a formal structure of early learning program was most often cited by parents of children in non-government preschools than in other care types.

Similar information was sought in the CEaCS from parents of children in preschool or in LDC, although the range of reasons captured was different to those in the NSPCCC. Table 22 shows that location was important, as was the quality or reputation of the educational program or the care. Simple "availability" was also often cited.

Table 22: Main reason for choosing preschool or LDC for 3-5 year old children not yet in school, parents' reports, CEaCS
  Preschool (%) LDC (%)
Close to home 33.4 21.7
Quality/reputation of educational program 23.3 16.8
Quality/reputation of care 12.8 23.6
Availability 11.7 16.8
Child's brother/sister attends/attended 4.4 2.6
Close to child's/brother's/sister's school 3.1 1.4
Cost 1.7 3.0
Close to school 1.3 0.6
Close to own/spouse's/partner's work 0.9 2.6
Hours of operation 0.4 1.7
On the way to own/spouse's/partner's work 0.2 1.1
Other 6.8 8.1
Sample size 649 532

Source: CEaCS (2008)

Being close to home and the quality/reputation of the educational program were more often given as the main reason for children in preschool compared to children in LDC, while for LDC, the quality of the care and availability were more often cited as the main reason, compared to those in preschool.

The above analyses show that there are somewhat different reasons for choosing a particular type of ECE across the different providers. We can examine this more closely, in relation to parents' reports of why they used preschool in a LDC centre for their child, as opposed to a dedicated preschool (using NSPCCC, see Table 23). The most common reason was that this option provided more flexible hours. After this, there were various reasons that related to the convenience of a preschool in LDC. Overall, 13% reported that this was the only option available.

Table 23: Reasons for using preschool in LDC rather than dedicated preschool, parents' reports, children in preschool program in LDC in the year before full-time schooling, NSPCCC
  % of parents
Provides more flexible hours 32.0
Already attending LDC centre 16.2
Familiarity/child has friends or siblings there 15.1
Convenience/cost 13.9
No availability - no other option 13.0
Prefer programs/activities 7.5
Child not old enough 1.4
Other 26.1
Sample size 268

Note: Respondents could give multiple responses, so percentages add to more than 100. Reasons were collected in open-ended questions and then coded later in survey processing.

Source: NSPCCC (2009)

In the CEaCS, for 3-5 year olds who were not in school or preschool but were in LDC, parents were asked if they preferred their child to be in preschool. For a significant proportion, the answer could not be determined (39%), while 44% would not have preferred preschool, leaving 17% who stated that they would have preferred preschool. Among those who said they would have preferred preschool (n = 82), the most commonly cited reason was the quality or reputation of the educational program (59%), followed by cost (23%).

Looking from the other perspective, in CEaCS, parents of children who attended a standalone preschool were asked whether they would have preferred their child to attend LDC. Of the 3-5 year olds who were in preschool and not already attending LDC, just 5% said that they would have preferred LDC. While this applied to just a small number of respondents (n = 29), the reason for this preference was most often said to be related to the hours of operation (40% of these respondents).

6.2 Types of early childhood education and regional and family characteristics

Section 5 explored how, in aggregate, ECE participation varied with different regional, family and child characteristics. Here, we examine whether the type of ECE varied with regional and family characteristics. Our goal with these analyses is to look for under-representation in specific types of ECE, which may indicate the presence of barriers to access. We have not considered child characteristics (Indigenous status, NESB and health status), as here our interest is related more to factors of a geographic and socio-economic nature. Tables pertaining to those child characteristics are provided in Appendix C.

In the analyses in Section 5, data were sourced from LSAC, NSPCCC and AEDI. In this section, for simplicity of presentation, the analyses are restricted to one data source at a time, starting with national estimates of the percentage of children in each type of ECE. The AEDI is used in preference to the other sources, given the much larger sample size in this collection; however, AEDI cannot be used to examine family characteristics (as these details were not available in the AEDI) and so for those analyses LSAC data are used instead. LSAC was selected instead of NSPCCC because of the larger sample size of LSAC. Appendix C includes tables for those sources not included in this section.

As shown in Table 6, the classification of ECE type varies somewhat according to the source of data, given underlying differences in collection methodologies. For those in ECE, we identify in this section those who were in preschool only (that is, a standalone preschool that is not also an LDC provider); those participating in both preschool and LDC (that is, in two different programs); and those in LDC only. For ease of presentation, we have not made the distinction between those in LDC with and without a preschool program.

Estimates are provided initially at the national level. Analyses of the AEDI also include figures disaggregated by state/territory. Analyses of LSAC data include comparisons of the eastern states to other states. This is to allow us to consider the effects on participation of the two broad models of provision of ECE in Australia.

Remoteness

Earlier it was shown that as remoteness increases, children are less likely to be in ECE prior to starting their first year of full-time schooling. Table 24 shows that what appears to vary the most according to remoteness is the proportion in attendance at LDC, which declines with remoteness. These patterns are also evident in the LSAC and NSPCCC data (see Appendix C).

Table 24: Type of early childhood education, by remoteness in the year before full-time schooling, AEDI
  Major cities (%) Inner regional areas (%) Outer regional areas (%) Remote or very remote areas (%) Australia (%)
In ECE
Preschool only 54.3 55.3 52.8 55.2 54.4
Preschool and LDC 8.9 11.4 14.1 16.1 10.2
LDC only 26.7 22.7 20.2 9.6 34.8
Not in ECE 10.0 10.7 12.9 19.0 10.8
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Sample size 156,006 48,853 23,341 8,053 236,253

Note: Refer to Appendix B for important notes regarding these estimates. Chi-square (6) > 2,000, p = .000 (excluding those with no ECE). This test shows whether there was a statistically significant difference in the ECE type distribution by remoteness, but does not provide information about which specific percentages were different.

Source: AEDI (2009)

The state/territory information in Figure 1 shows that the effects of remoteness are apparent in most states/territories of Australia, but more so in NSW and Queensland. In Queensland, there is a higher rate of participation in only preschools in the more remote areas, which is a pattern not observed in other states/territories.

Figure 1: Type of early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling, by state/territory and remoteness, AEDI

Note: Refer to Appendix B for important notes regarding these estimates.

Source: AEDI (2009)

In those states/territories in which ECE is often provided through LDC, there may be some barriers, then, to ECE participation for those in more remote areas. Future research will be needed to determine whether this is related to the supply of LDCs in more regional areas, or whether it is related to issues related to the take-up of places (perhaps associated with issues of cost or affordability).

Socio-economic status of regions

Overall, children living in regions with a relatively high socio-economic status were the most likely to participate in ECE in the year prior to the first year of full-time schooling. Looking at these data on types of ECE at the national level (Table 25), there were no particularly large differences in the distribution of types of ECE across regional socio-economic status. It does appear, though, that children in the most disadvantaged regions were less likely than children in other regions to be in only LDC, and they were somewhat more likely to be in both LDC and preschool. However, this finding was not so apparent in the LSAC data (presented in Appendix C).

Table 25: Type of early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling, by socio-economic status of region, AEDI
  Most disadvantaged (bottom 20%) (%) Moderate advantage (middle 60%) (%) Most advantaged (top 20%) (%) Australia (%)
In ECE        
Preschool only 55.7 52.4 56.9 54.3
Preschool and LDC 13.7 10.4 9.2 10.1
LDC only 16.6 24.9 25.9 24.9
Not in ECE 14.0 12.3 8.0 10.8
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Sample size 12,706 131,241 89,465 233,412

Note: Refer to Appendix B for important notes regarding these estimates. The Australia total includes NT, but the NT data are not included in the SEIFA categories, as this classification was not available for NT. Chi-square (4) = 722, p = .000 (excluding those with no ECE). This test shows whether there was a statistically significant difference in the ECE type distribution by SEIFA, but does not provide information about which specific percentages were different.

Source: AEDI (2009)

Using the AEDI, state/territory differences in regard to associations between socio-economic status of regions and ECE type are apparent (Figure 2). The greatest difference in the types of ECE attended according to the socio-economic status of the region was in Queensland, where the highest proportion attending only preschool was in the lowest socio-economic regions. Compared to other socio-economic regions in Queensland, a much smaller percentage in the lowest socio-economic regions was in LDC. While this suggests some barriers to ECE may exist through the lower take-up of LDC places, especially for those in disadvantaged areas of Queensland, this may be too simplistic an interpretation. These regional differences are also a factor of the family characteristics in these regions. Again, focused studies on parental decision-making may be needed to fully understand the way in which regional disadvantage may flow through to choice of type of ECE.

Figure 2: Type of early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling, by state and socio-economic status of region, AEDI

 

Note: Refer to Appendix B for important notes regarding these estimates. SEIFA data were not available for NT. Most disadvantaged = bottom 20% of the distribution; middle = middle 60%; most advantaged = top 20%.

Source: AEDI (2009)

Socio-economic status of families

To examine the types of ECE according to the socio-economic status of families, this section includes only information about family income and parental employment. While in Section 5 parental education and single- versus couple-parent families were also examined, here there were no strong reasons to expect that types of ECE would vary by these characteristics. Tables for those variables are shown in Appendix C.

Table 26 shows how ECE types vary according to relative family income. As already discussed in Section 5, the clearest pattern shows that non-participation in ECE was higher in families on relatively low incomes. At the national level, using the LSAC data, there was not a statistically significant association between types of ECE and family income.

Table 26: Type of early childhood education in year prior to full-time schooling, by family income, LSAC
  Lower incomes (bottom 20%) (%) Middle incomes (middle 60%) (%) Higher incomes (top 20%) (%) Australia (%)
In ECE        
Preschool only 50.7 56.0 57.3 54.8
Preschool and LDC 9.1 9.8 11.9 9.6
LDC only 26.7 28.4 28.4 28.5
Not in ECE 13.5 5.8 2.4 7.1
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Sample size 552 1,665 542 3,005

Note: Refer to Appendix B for important notes regarding these estimates. The Australia total includes families with missing information about income. Chi-square (6) = 7.67, p = .26 (excluding those with no ECE). This test shows whether there was a statistically significant difference in the ECE type distribution by income.

Source: LSAC (2008)

In the eastern states (Figure 3), most differences by family income related to the percentage not in ECE. But in the other state/territories, in higher income families, children were more likely to be participating in a preschool and LDC. This may simply reflect an association between income and employment, with families needing to use LDC when parents spend more time in paid work.7

Figure 3: Type of early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling, by family income and broad state grouping, LSAC

Note: Refer to Appendix B for important notes regarding these estimates. Lower income = bottom 20% of the distribution; middle income = middle 60%; higher income = top 20%.

Source: LSAC (2008)

Parental employment

As discussed in Section 5, employment participation by the primary carer is expected to have marked associations with children's participation in ECE, given that employed parents are likely to need some form of care for their children - which may be through LDC or preschool - while they are in employment.

For parents who work relatively long hours, preschool programs may not provide the care needed to fit with the demands of employment, given that preschool often does not cover a full work day, is only for one or two days a week, and may vary from week to week. As a result, employed parents - especially those who are full-time employed - are expected to seek LDC for children instead of preschool (see Baxter, Gray, Alexander, Strazdins, & Bittman, 2007). Consistent with this, we saw earlier (in Table 20) that the reasons given by parents for children's participation in ECE varied according to whether the ECE was delivered through LDC or a preschool, with work demands being a more likely reason for the former.

Analyses presented in Section 5 showed that if the primary carer was not employed, children were less likely to be in LDC or preschool. This was particularly noticeable for families in the broad state group that comprises NSW, Victoria and Queensland (Figure 4). Table 27 shows that, at the national level, children with a not-employed primary carer were more likely to be in preschool alone than were children with part-time or full-time employed primary carers. Children with full-time employed primary carers were the most likely to be in LDC.8

Figure 4: Type of early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling, by primary carer employment and broad state grouping, LSAC

Note: Refer to Appendix B for important notes regarding these estimates.

Source: LSAC (2008)

Table 27: Type of early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling, by primary carer employment, LSAC
  Primary carer not employed (%) Primary carer employed part-time (%) Primary carer employed full-time (%) Australia (%)
In ECE        
Preschool only 64.4 54.1 33.8 54.8
Preschool plus LDC 5.0 12.7 12.5 9.6
LDC only 19.7 29.5 46.6 28.5
Not in ECE 10.9 3.7 7.1 7.1
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Sample size 1,071 1,445 489 3,005

Note: Refer to Appendix B for important notes regarding these estimates. Chi-square (4) = 196.2, p = .000 (excluding those with no ECE). This test shows whether there was a statistically significant difference in the ECE type distribution by employment status, but does not provide information about which specific percentages were different.

Source: LSAC (2008)

Figure 4 shows the effects of the different systems of ECE according to the broad state groupings. In the grouping of SA, WA, Tas., NT and ACT, there was a greater use of preschool alone, even among children with full-time employed primary carers. However, significant proportions of children attended a combination of preschool and LDC, especially when the primary carer was employed part-time or full-time. This is consistent with the finding, discussed earlier, related to higher income families having a higher proportion of children in LDC in these states/territories. In contrast, in the NSW, Vic., Qld group, more children attended LDC overall, and this was especially apparent when the primary carer was employed.

These findings draw attention to the fact that choice of ECE may be affected not only by the delivery system that predominates in the area, or by economic factors, but also by the practicality of how different types of ECE fit around parental work arrangements.

6.3 Summary

This section has taken a detailed look at children's participation in different types of ECE in the year before full-time schooling. The aim was to provide some insights into the decision-making that goes into the choice of the type of ECE children attend, and also into those factors that might be related to lower levels of participation in particular types of ECE.

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 reason that parents provided for this 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.

The analyses of how type of ECE varied with regional and family socio-economic characteristics portrayed an equally complex picture to those relating to decision-making factors. In particular, parental employment is an important factor explaining how ECE type varies across families, with greater use of LDC occurring when parents were employed for longer hours. This was the clearest association of the regional and family factors explored here, and highlights that family needs for child care are likely to influence their choice of type of ECE. This fits with many of the stakeholder discussions in which departmental officers acknowledged that the hours of many preschool-only programs could be a barrier for parents juggling employment and ECE.

In addition, the relationship between regional and family socio-economic characteristics and type of ECE used by families varied across jurisdictions.

The variation in types of ECE clearly reflected the state/territory differences in ECE delivery, showing up the greater reliance on LDC in the larger eastern states than in other states. In all states/territories, though, there was a significant proportion of children in both preschool and LDC.

Like the findings from Section 5 about non-participation in ECE of any kind, a more in-depth examination of how decisions about using different types of ECE are made by parents, and the factors (including preferences, and regional and family socio-economic characteristics) that underlie them, would provide a greater understanding on these matters, especially to the extent that parents may be constrained in their options for ECE. Previous qualitative research in relation to parents' employment decision-making and beliefs about child care has found that these decisions are multifaceted and complex (Hand, 2005; Hand & Hughes, 2004) and are a mixture of beliefs about what is best for their children, as well as the opportunities and constraints available to them to enact their preferences. A similar approach in investigating decisions about accessing ECE and the types chosen may also provide valuable insights into the complexity of such decisions; for example, by taking account of the typical delivery method for ECE that is relevant to individual families, specific local area factors in relation to the availability of different options, and whether families with particular characteristics feel constrained in different ways by the ECE options available to them (particularly in relation to cost and availability).

Footnotes

6 The question was "What sort of things did you think were important about the specific provider or centre when choosing main care/preschool for child?".

7 The NSPCCC data show that, at the national level, participation rates in LDC (on its own or combined with preschool) were lowest in the lower income families (Table C7).

8 These findings were also apparent in the NSPCCC data (Table C8).