Australia is Well Behind Other OECD Countries in Pre-School Education

A new brief published by the OECD shows that 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 2010, only 51% of children aged 4 in Australia were enrolled in early childhood education compared to 79% for all OECD countries. Only Canada, Switzerland and Turkey have lower rates amongst the 34 OECD countries. In contrast, enrolment rates are over 95% in Belgium, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and the UK.

The brief states that a growing body of research shows that participation in early childhood education can improve children’s cognitive abilities and socio-emotional development, help create a foundation for lifelong learning, make children’s learning outcomes more equitable, reduce poverty and improve social mobility from generation to generation.

Results from the OECD’s Programme for International Assessments (PISA) supports these findings. Students who have attended pre-primary education programmes tend to perform better that those who have not, even after allowing for students’ socio-economic background. PISA research also shows that the relationship between pre-primary education and later student performance tends to be greater with a longer duration of pre-primary education, smaller student-to-teacher ratios in pre-primary education and higher government expenditure per child at the pre-primary level.

The OECD brief shows that government expenditure on pre-school education in Australia is the lowest in the OECD. In 2009, total expenditure (from public and private sources) on pre-school education in Australia was 0.1% of GDP compared to an average of 0.5% for the OECD and higher in countries such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. Together with Ireland, Australian spends the lowest proportion of GDP on pre-school education in the OECD. It matches that of non-OECD countries such as India, Indonesia, and South Africa.

The private sector plays the dominant role in pre-school education in Australia while pre-school education is mainly provided through the public sector in the large majority of OECD countries. Only 25% of pre-school enrolments in Australia are in government pre-schools; the rest are in government-funded privately-operated institutions. In contrast, 63% of pre-school children in the OECD are enrolled in government pre-schools, 21% are in government funded privately-operated institutions and 16% are independent private. In many countries, over 90% of children attend government pre-schools.

Pre-school education in Australia is also much more dependent on private funding than in almost any other OECD country. Pre-school education is free in a majority of OECD countries but not generally so in Australia. In 2009, private funding accounted for 49% of total expenditure on pre-school education in Australia compared to the OECD average of 18%. Government expenditure on pre-school education exceeds 90% in many countries and close to 100% in countries such as Belgium, Estonia, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Sweden.

The low enrolment and expenditure on pre-school education is largely a result of low enrolments in NSW and Queensland, two of Australia’s most populated states. Using figures compiled on a different basis than those reported by the OECD, the Report on Government Services published by the Productivity Commission shows that 55% of children in the year before full time school in NSW were enrolled in pre-school in 2011-12. The figure for Queensland was 39%. This compares with around 100 per cent in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania and 92% in South Australia, 88% in the ACT and 86% in the Northern Territory.

The OECD brief says that “ensuring access to high-quality ECEC (early childhood education) should remain a priority for improving children’s outcomes and long-term efficiency gains for society at large, and the most vulnerable should be protected”. Early childhood education helps build a strong foundation for lifelong learning and ensure equity in school education later on.

In 2008, all Australian governments made a commitment through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) that they will provide access to pre-school programs to reach 95% of children by this year. On the basis of last year’s figures, it seems unlikely that NSW and Queensland will achieve the target. Overall, Australia has a long way to go to provide pre-school education at the level of other developed countries.

Trevor Cobbold

OECD 2013. How do early childhood education and care (ECEC) policies, systems and quality vary across OECD countries? Education Indicators in Focus, No.11, February.

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