The Parlous State of Pre-School Education

New figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that only 71% of children aged 4 in Australia attended a pre-school program in 2012. Nearly one in every three children misses out. In Tasmania, one in every two children misses out and in Australia’s most populous state (NSW) nearly one in two miss out.

These are appalling figures. They are amongst the worst in the OECD.

There is huge variation pre-school attendance across the country. In 2012, 96% of children aged 4 in Western Australia and 89% in South Australia attended a pre-school program compared to only 51% in Tasmania and 59% in New South Wales. The percentages in the other states and territories were: Victoria – 70%; Queensland – 72%; Northern Territory – 76%; and the ACT – 83%.

There is also a large variation in the hours attended. A small majority of children who attended a pre-school program did so for 15 hours or more a week in NSW (56%), South Australia (55%), Tasmania (67%) and the ACT (55%). In Western Australia, 94% attended for 10-14 hours a week and in Victoria it was 52%. Between one in six and one in ten children attended for less than 10 hours a week in NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT.

The figures show that there is a long way to go to achieve the target proportion of children attending a pre-school program set under the National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education. It says that by 2013 all children in the year before commencement of formal schooling should have access to a pre-school program delivered by a university qualified early childhood teacher for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year.

A new report (the Brennan report) has exposed the parlous state of pre-school education in NSW, which has the second lowest proportion of children attending a pre-school program of any state or territory. It says that there has been historic neglect and systematic under-funding of early childhood education in the state. In 2010-11, NSW spent $190 per child on services for young children compared with $266 in Victoria, $489 in the ACT, $499 in South Australia, $556 in Western Australia and $1,033 in the Northern Territory.

Between 1986 and 2006, there was a funding freeze on pre-school education in NSW. Almost no new services were established during those years, many preschools struggled to survive and some were forced to close. As a result, large areas of the State, especially the western, south-western and north-western suburbs of Sydney and the coastal strip running from Newcastle to Moruya have major participation gaps in early childhood education.

NSW parents face the highest pre-school fees in Australia. The high fees mean that the large majority of children missing out on a pre-school education are from low income and Indigenous families.

The report notes 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.”

It says that free, or almost free, access to early childhood education should be provided to low income, Indigenous, and disability children as well as children with limited English.

Removing or reducing preschool fees would rapidly boost participation by low-income children, especially those from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and other priority groups. Lowering the cost for families across the board would help bring NSW into closer alignment with other States (several of which provide free preschool). [p.2]

For children in low-income families, access to early childhood education will only become a reality if services are offered at no, or minimal, cost. As well, services must be delivered in a way that encourages and supports vulnerable and disadvantaged families to participate. [p.19]

The report states that access to high quality early education helps children to be better prepared for school by building strong foundations in language, number, social skills, emotional control and reasoning. Quality early learning experiences are especially beneficial for children from vulnerable or disadvantaged backgrounds and children with additional needs.

Conversely, missing out on early education can have enduring consequences. Children who do not experience quality early education can find themselves in ‘perpetual catch-up mode’ at school. This can be seen in the large achievement gaps that exist between low and high income students in the early years of school and continue through schooling.

In addition to the individual benefits of high quality early childhood education, the report says that there are compelling economic and social arguments for investing in it. Children who receive quality early education are likely to need fewer educational support interventions later in their school lives. They are more likely to finish high school and to find fulfilling, stable and productive employment, less likely to depend on income support and significantly less likely to become involved in crime.

The Australian Government has provided nearly $1 billion to the states and territories over five years to 2012-13 to meet the target of universal access to pre-school. Nearly $280 million was allocated to NSW, increasing from $10 million in additional funding in 2008-09 to $138 million in 2012-13. However, it is clear that NSW is not going to meet this target.

The Brennan report says that a big increase in funding will be required to meet the target.

Small adjustments to current arrangements will not be sufficient to achieve universal access. Fundamental change to the current funding model, re-energised relationships with the sector and substantially more investment will be required. [p.19]

In 2011-12, about $260 million was spent on early childhood education in NSW. Economic modelling for the report indicates that a further $260 million a year is needed to meet the universal access target. It says that this should be funded by the NSW Government and an additional Commonwealth Government financial commitment to the achievement of national goals for early childhood education beyond 2013 through a new national agreement on early childhood education.

The NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, said that the Government would be supporting all the recommendations of the Brennan Report. However, the funding needed to provide free access to pre-school for low income families seems a long way off. Mr. Piccoli said that the funding recommendation would depend on significant Commonwealth Government support in a new national agreement on early childhood education still to be negotiated.

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