Australia Still Lags in Pre-school Education

New figures released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that Australia still lags other developed countries in pre-school education. 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. Only Canada, Finland, Poland, Switzerland and Turkey have lower rates amongst the 34 OECD countries. In contrast, enrolment rates are 95 per cent or more in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and the UK. The average enrolment for European Union (EU) members of the OECD is 90 per cent.

Only 13 per cent of children aged 3 in Australia are engaged in early childhood education compared to 67 per cent in OECD countries and 77 per cent in EU countries. Only Canada, Switzerland and Turkey have lower rates of engagement than Australia by 3 year-olds.

However, there has been a significant improvement in pre-school participation in Australia since 2005. In 2005, only 53 per cent of children aged 4 were enrolled in pre-school education. On the other hand, enrolments of children aged 3 fell from 17 per cent in 2005 to 13 per cent in 2011.

Australia spends less on pre-school education than any other OECD country for which figures are available. It has the lowest expenditure on pre-school education as a proportion of GDP. In 2010, total expenditure (from public and private sources) on pre-school education in Australia was 0.11 per cent of GDP compared to an average of 0.55 per cent for the OECD. In contrast, Denmark spent over one per cent of GDP on early childhood education and several countries spend over 0.7 per cent of GDP including Iceland, Spain, Israel, Russia, Luxembourg, Slovenia and France.

The private sector continues to play 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. In 2011, only 25 per cent of pre-school enrolments in Australia were in government pre-schools; the rest are in government-funded privately-operated institutions. In contrast, 68 per cent of pre-school children in the OECD are enrolled in government pre-schools. In many countries, over 90 per cent 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 in Australia. In 2010, private funding accounted for 44 per cent of total expenditure on pre-school education in Australia compared to the OECD average of 18 per cent.

Increasing participation in pre-school education is a national goal. Governments in Australia 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 nearly $1 billion to the states and territories over five years to 2012-13. The Government will provide a further $445 million over two years to 2014-15.

The original goal was to ensure universal access to pre-school by 2013. The new OECD figures show there is a long way to go. Many OECD countries have universal access to early childhood education at age 3 yet only two-thirds of children aged 4 and just over 10 per cent of children aged 3 in Australia participate in pre-school.

Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics earlier this year show huge variation in pre-school attendance across the country. In 2012, 96 per cent of children aged 4 in Western Australia, 89 per cent in South Australia and 83 per cent in the ACT attended a pre-school program compared to only 51 per cent in Tasmania and 59 per cent in New South Wales. The percentages in Victoria (70 per cent) and Queensland (72 per cent) are also low by OECD standards.

Australia needs to increase its effort in early childhood education. 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.

Numerous research studies show that early childhood education has a key role to play in countering the effects of socio-economic disadvantage on learning development that are already apparent by age 5. For example, studies by Nobel Laureate, James Heckman, show that investment in early childhood education for disadvantaged students leads to better school outcomes and reduces the achievement gap between rich and poor. However, 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 earlier this 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. With the exception of Ireland and the Netherlands 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.

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