Australia Still Lags Badly in Pre-School Education

New data released by the OECD shows that Australia lags well behind most other OECD countries in enrolment in pre-school education. Though enrolment has increased significantly since 2005, it remains well below the average for OECD countries.

Australia has the lowest enrolment of 3-year-olds in pre-school in the OECD. Only 18 per cent of 3-year-olds in Australia are enrolled in pre-school compared with 70 per cent on average across OECD. More than 90 per cent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in pre-school education in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom,

The enrolment rate of 4-year-olds in Australia increased by more than 20 percentage points to 76 per cent between 2005 and 2012, but this rate remains well below the OECD average of 84 per cent. Only seven countries (out of 34 OECD countries) had a lower enrolment of 4-year-olds in pre-school. There was virtually no change in the proportion of 3-year-olds enrolled in pre-school in Australia between 2005 and 2012.

Early childhood education is a factor in later success at school. Fifteen-year-old students who had attended at least one year of pre-school education perform better on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey than those who did not, even after accounting for their socio-economic backgrounds.

PISA research also shows that the relationship between pre-school attendance and later school performance tends to be stronger in school systems with a longer duration of pre-school education, smaller student-to-teacher ratios in pre-school, and higher public expenditure per pre-school child.

The new figures show that Australia spends only 0.1 per cent of GDP on pre-school education, compared with an average of 0.6 across the OECD and 0.8 per cent or more in Chile, Denmark, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Spain and the Russian Federation. The comparatively low aggregate spending in Australia reflects early childhood education programmes typically starting at a later age and being shorter in duration.

Publicly-funded pre-school education tends to be more strongly developed in the European than the non-European countries of the OECD. In Europe, the concept of universal access to education for 3-6 year-olds is generally accepted. Most countries in this region provide all children with at least two years of free, publicly funded pre-school education.

Pre-school education in Australia is much more dependent on private than public funding. Fifty-five per cent of expenditure on pre-school comes from private sources and 45 per cent from public funding. In contrast, across OECD countries most spending on pre-school education comes from public funding: 81 per cent compared to 19 per cent from private funding. The dependence on private funding in Australia is the equal highest with Japan in the OECD.

Increasing participation in pre-school education in Australia is a national goal. Governments have 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 over $1 billion to the states and territories over seven years to 2014-15. This has made a difference by increasing pre-school enrolment, but there is a long way to go to achieve universal pre-school education.

Future Federal funding of pre-school education is under a cloud. The Abbott Government has only extended the current funding agreement to the end of 2015. Further funding for pre-school education is dependent on the outcome of a review of early childhood education being conducted by the Productivity Commission.

The Commission published a draft report in July. It recommends that governments should maintain pre-school program funding as a priority area. It said that the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education has been a major factor in boosting pre-school attendance across the country in recent years and this should be maintained. Its final report is due at the end of October.

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