Early childhood education and care barely rated a mention in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election. But the mood has changed in Canberra.
In the lead-up to the May election, Labor has pledged $A1.75 billion to extend the current subsidy for four-year-olds to attend preschool to three-year-olds. This goes a bit further than the Coalition, which has pledged another year of funding for four-year-olds to attend preschool only.
There is mounting evidence that two years of quality preschool sets up a child for success throughout their education journey and life. A wealth of international research shows children who attend high-quality early childhood programs not only perform better in learning, but also in skills such as social competence, vocabulary and self-control. And these benefits are greatest for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This is backed by research into early brain development, which shows the importance of laying foundations for learning early in life, while children’s brains are most malleable. Economist James Heckman famously showed that investing in early learning and development has greater return on investment than addressing issues in later years.
Of course, investment in schools remains important to ensure early advantages don’t fade out over time, but a good start matters to maximise learning. Despite progress in early childhood reforms, Australia still doesn’t provide an adequate dose of quality early childhood education and care to all children. This election is a chance to focus policy attention back onto the benefits of early learning.
Why two years matters
Just over 90% of Australian children are participating in preschool in the year before school – when they are four years old. Now the challenge is to extend preschool participation to three-year-old children, so support for learning begins even earlier.
In Australia, a major 2017 review identified that funding two years of preschool would be the most effective early childhood reform the country could make.
In the United Kingdom, a large study that began in 1997 assessed more than 3,000 children at the age of three and followed them all the way up to 16. It found two or three years of quality preschool placed children nearly eight months ahead in their literacy at entry to school, compared to children with no preschool. At the age of 16, more months spent in preschool was associated with higher grades in English and maths.
But this isn’t just about reading and writing. Quality preschools run play-based learning programs in which children are encouraged to discover and explore. These play experiences provide opportunities for children to develop essential skills such as co-operation, concentration, problem-solving and self-control.
This sets up children for the more structured learning environments they will encounter in school.
Some Australian policymakers are acting on this evidence. Victoria, NSW and the ACT have committed to subsidising universal access to three-year-old preschool, coming into effect over the next decade. Interestingly, both Labor and Liberal governments have introduced these policies, indicating clear potential for cross-party support for two years of preschool.
Don’t forget the quality
For early childhood services to make a difference to children’s learning, they need to be high-quality. The key to this is interactions between educators and children – in which educators extend children’s thinking and language, and explore ideas together.
Interactions must also be warm and responsive. An Australian study that tracked 2,500 children found those who had attended early childhood services with strong emotional engagement did better at school than children who attended early childhood services where relationships were weaker.
Quality also includes programs that provide opportunities for children to explore in the natural environment, sensory play (like playdough or water), spaces for calm reflection, and activities that challenge children’s physical and cognitive development. Research shows experiencing such environments in early childhood services can deliver a range of cognitive, social and behaviour development benefits.
Australia’s National Quality Standard aims for early childhood services to achieve a consistent level of quality. But significant challenges remain in lifting standards throughout the sector. The Australian study of 2,500 children found the quality of support available for children’s learning remains especially low in low-income communities.
The major parties differ in their response to this challenge. The Coalition supported the National Quality Framework in principle, but is now pursuing savings in the costs of investment in early childhood sector reform. Labor has pledged to reinstate funding for the framework as part of its two years of preschool package.
Much of the quality of preschool depends on the ability of the almost 200,000 educators who work in Australian early childhood services to plan and deliver effective play-based learning programs and strong relationships with children and families.
Commitments to two years of preschool places have increased pressure on the supply of highly skilled early childhood educators. In response, both Victoria and NSW have committed to reducing tuition fees for students studying early childhood education. This is a great start, but a concerted national approach to workforce development is needed.
Educators’ pay and conditions remain a significant issue in achieving a workforce of the scale and quality the early childhood policy agenda demands. Considerable work remains to break the link between educators’ pay and the costs of early childhood services that are passed on to families. This link currently means difficulties remunerating educators are greatest in Australia’s lowest-income communities – where skilled educators are needed the most.
One in five Australian children are not developmentally on track when they start school, with a widening gap between the most and least advantaged communities. Australia cannot afford to have that gap widen further.
Part of Australia’s commitment needs to be secure, ongoing funding for quality service provision, as we have for schools. We’re certainly not at that point yet, but as we head into a federal election campaign, we are much closer to bipartisan support for early learning than ever before.