A comprehensive new review of research on the impact of early childhood education in Australia and overseas shows that universal access to preschool education enhances developmental outcomes for all children, particularly for disadvantaged children. The review was published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
There is an unequivocal effect of exposure to the quality of early learning and development programs provided through preschool programs for older children (generally 3 to 5 years). In particular, the evidence supports improved performance in standardised tests in the early years of primary school as a result of participation in these programs. [p.10]
Early educational intervention has been shown to have a substantial short-term and long-term effect on cognition, social and emotional development, school progress, antisocial behaviour and even crime. [p.25]
A comparison of child outcomes in the first few years of full-time schooling and previous participation in preschool showed that those who participated in preschool had a lower probability of being rated by their teachers as doing poorly in school, having low maths or literacy levels, and being rated by their carer as having poor social and emotional development.
The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reading assessment results of 15-year-old students found that, in most countries, those who had attended pre-primary or preschool for more than a year outperformed those who had not attended, even after allowing for differences in socio-economic background. Research in Australia based on the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) reports on more than 8,000 children found that, after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics, there was a significant positive association between attendance at preschool programs and year-3 NAPLAN results.
The literature reports that children who bear the greatest burden of risk factors (conditions in the individual, family and social environments that predict developmental vulnerability) face the highest lifetime chances of poor educational attainment, poor physical and mental health, behavioural and relationship problems, and low social and economic participation. These children particularly benefit from preschool education.
Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of high-quality, focused preschool programs in reducing the effects of social disadvantage, developing children’s social competency and emotional health, and preparing children for a successful transition to formal schooling. These effects have been demonstrated to have significant economic and social benefits for the lifetime of participants. [p.11]
However, these children are least likely to attend preschool. There is evidence that children from low SES and Indigenous backgrounds, children from a language background other than English, children living in remote and very remote areas, and children with a disability are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable and but less likely to participate in preschool. For example, 30 per cent of children who were found to be vulnerable on the Australian Early Development Index in 2012 did not attend a preschool program.
The evidence is that universal preschool education is very cost effective and has benefits for the rest of society.
Investing in disadvantaged young children promotes fairness and social justice and, at the same time, promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large. [p.4]
Cost-benefit studies from around the world show substantial individual and societal benefits from high quality child care and preschool education.
A striking feature of these results is that the size of the accrued benefit far outweighs the cost of interventions, even considering a substantial margin for error. [p.4]
The studies also show that early interventions targeted toward disadvantaged children have much higher returns than later interventions such as reduced pupil-teacher ratios, public job training, prisoner rehabilitation programs, tuition subsidies, or expenditure on police.
There has been limited use of cost–benefit analysis to evaluate ECEC intervention programs in Australia. Recent work published by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has estimated the benefit of ECEC to the economy to be a $7-9.3 billion increase in Australia’s GDP. It also shows that upfront costs to the taxpayer are far outweighed by the fiscal savings and revenue gains in the long term. It estimated a net fiscal benefit to government of between $1.6 and $1.9 billion.
All Australian governments have committed in recent years, under a series of national partnership agreements and reform initiatives, to increase children’s participation in high quality preschool education in the year prior to full-time schooling, with a specific focus on increasing participation of Indigenous and disadvantaged children.
Under the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education in 2008, the Australian Government and the state and territory governments agreed to provide 600 hours of preschool per year, delivered by a qualified early childhood teacher to all children in the year before they commence full-time schooling by 2013. Last May, this agreement was extended to the end of 2017.