Australia has dramatically failed to achieve its target of universal pre-school education by 2013. New figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that only 78 per cent of 4 year-olds attended some form of pre-school education in 2013. However, attendance was up slightly from 75 per cent in 2012.
There are large variations in pre-school attendance across the country. In Western Australia, 98 per cent of 4 year-olds attended pre-school compared to only 53 per cent in Tasmania and 65 per cent in NSW. Attendance was over 90 per cent in Queensland and the ACT. The ABS warns that the Queensland and WA figures could be over-estimated. The percentage in Victoria was 75 per cent and 80 per cent in South Australia.
Attendance increased from 2012 in all jurisdictions except South Australia and the Northern Territory.
Governments in Australia agreed to provide universal access to pre-school for children in the year before they commence school under a national partnership agreement. Under the agreement, the Australian Government provided nearly $1 billion to the states and territories over five years to 2012-13. A further $445 million was provided over two years to 2014-15.
The new figures show that there is a long way to go to provide universal pre-school education. Australia needs to increase its effort, especially in New South Wales and Tasmania.
Australia has one of the lowest levels of enrolment in pre-school education in the OECD and spends less on pre-school education as a proportion of GDP than any other OECD country. In 2011, 67 per cent of children aged 4 in Australia were enrolled in early childhood education compared to 84 per cent across 33 OECD countries
The latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment show that attendance at pre-school prepares students better for entry into – and success in – formal schooling. High quality early childhood education helps children to be better prepared for school by building strong foundations in language, number, social skills, emotional control and reasoning. It also contributes to better health and economic outcomes in the longer term.
The large majority of children missing out on a pre-school education are from low income and Indigenous families. A report on early childhood education in NSW last year found that:
…mothers of children not attending a centre or school-based care/education program were less well educated and more likely to be unemployed, have a lower weekly income, have more financial stress, have larger numbers of children living in the household, and reside in less advantaged neighbourhoods. [p.20]
Part of the solution to increasing pre-school participation in Australia and ensuring universal access is to expand the provision of public pre-schools and make them free. Most European countries provide all children with at least two years of free, publicly-funded pre-primary education. Such access is generally a statutory right from age 3. This is the model Australia should look to in order to increase participation in early childhood education and help reduce inequity in school outcomes.