The latest Council of Australian Governments (COAG) reform council report released this week showing small improvement in the quality of Australia’s early childhood education comes as federal and state governments are rewinding reforms in this vital area.
The report is a five year update on the objectives in the National Education Agreement. This agreement, signed by state and federal governments, aims to get all levels of government moving in the same direction on education.
Overall, the results for Australia’s education system can only be described as mixed, with small gains in some areas offset by declines in others.
But the report also pays special attention to the area of improving early childhood education – an area that we know is vital for success later in primary school and for school completion. International research also shows that the provision of quality early childhood education programs to disadvantaged children is associated with increased adult employment and decreased crime.
The COAG report measures how well children are preparing for and starting school through a few different indicators, including the proportion of children attending a preschool program, the number of hours they attend, and through the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI). This index looks at five areas – physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, and general knowledge.
The report shows there has been some progress. At the national level the proportion of children who were developmentally vulnerable on one or more of the five AEDI measures fell from 23.6% in 2009 to 22.0% in 2012. The Northern Territory fared worst with 35% and Victoria best with less than 20%.
But there is less positive news when we look at the level of access and indigenous disadvantage. In 2012, in most states and territories, over 90% of children enrolled in a preschool program and attended. But the National Partnership on Early Childhood Education sets 15 hours of preschool a week as the standard for quality learning. And the proportion of four and five year-old children receiving 15 hours or more of preschool ranged from 66.2% in Tasmania to only 5.5% in Western Australia.
There is also a clear gap between the outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. The proportion of Indigenous children who were developmentally vulnerable on one or more of the five AEDI measures was 43.2% in 2012. While this is down from 47.4% in 2009 the fact that Indigenous children are still twice as likely to be considered developmentally vulnerable means there is much more work to do.
Especially because we know that improving early childhood can make a big difference from generation to generation. If we improved early childhood education for Indigenous children now, we could address disadvantage long into the future.
In order to provide due recognition and respect for Indigenous culture our measures, policies and practices must also be sensitive and responsive. We need to ensure that our early childhood development and education programs are culturally appropriate and ready for all children. This effort could also profit from having a close look at what is driving the success in other countries such as Norway.
We know what needs to be done in the area of early childhood education. But unfortunately, we are seeing government policies go in the opposite direction.
We know, for example, that having a more highly qualified kindergarten teacher is strongly linked to better literacy and numeracy test results later on. And yet, the new Abbott government is about to water down the education requirements for teachers and other workers in the childcare sector, as well as relaxing the rules on child-to-carer ratios.
Similarly, instead of expanding access to preschool education to younger children the NSW government is going to withdraw subsidies for most three year-old children.
This means the small improvements evident in the COAG progress report could be for nothing. If we ignore the warning signs and evidence now, Australia’s goal of greater access to quality early childhood education - and all the benefits that would bring - will never be reached.