New report urges extension of Universal Access to three year olds
The recent State of Early Learning in Australia Report 2016 released by early childhood advocacy organisation Early Learning: Everyone Benefits argues Australian children’s learning outcomes would be improved by earlier, universal access to education.
“The first five years of every child’s life can unleash a lifetime of potential”, according to the report, with investment in early years education being shown to prevent problems later in life.
The Universal Access program, supported by the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education, has helped to ensure every Australian child has the opportunity to access an educational program of 15 hours per week in the year before formal schooling.
Does Universal Access start early enough?
And while the current Universal Access program has ensured most children receive an educational programe in the year before formal schooling, generally at the age of four, the report suggests starting Universal Access earlier would provide greater benefit.
Providing access to education for three year olds has been shown to be beneficial to learning outcomes, where the education program provided is of a sufficient quality. As there is no universal program to support three year olds in accessing early learning in Australia, there are various levels of participation across the states and territories, with affordability cited as a key barrier to access.
The national participation rate of three year olds in early learning is 66 per cent, which ranks Australia according to OECD data in the bottom third of comparable countries. The reports argues that, “if Australia is to improve its performance in international education testing then extending universal provision to ages younger than the year before school must be a priority.”
The report cites falling PISA results in 2011 as justification for the increased investment in early learning. PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment, records educational outcomes of students at age 15 to make global comparisons among OECD countries. In latest PISA testing, Australia has fallen from 15th to 19th in mathematical literacy, 10th to 16th in scientific literacy and 9th to 14th in reading literacy.
PISA is a strong proponent for early childhood education with its analysis finding that in most countries, students who had attended at least one year of early leaning perform better than those who had not.
Many Australian children “developmentally vulnerable”
National research has identified a need to improve learning outcomes in the early years. The Australian Early Development Census (AECD) measures how young children have developed by the time they commence formal schooling. Children are assessed as a community rather than individuals. It is a government initiative that relies on teachers reporting the state of first year full-time students against the criteria or domains of physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills (school based) and communication skills and general knowledge.
In 2015, according to the AEDC, one in five Australian children was developmentally vulnerable in one or more domain in their first year of formal schooling.
The figure is substantially higher among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, with two in five children deemed vulnerable in one or more domain of childhood development.
The report states that while programs such as Universal Access have improved funding to the early childhood education sector, Australia’s investment in early learning is still relatively low when compared to other countries.
The benefits to our national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in cultivating a quality education and care program for children have been estimated at $10.3 billion in the years to 2020.
The report has also identified investing in recruiting and retaining a “well-qualified, diverse, mixed-gender workforce” as essential with research showing that “children who attend an early learning program led by qualified early teachers are up to 40 per cent ahead of their peers in standardised testing by Year 3”.
The State of Early Learning in Australian Report 2016 is the first in a series of reports to be published annually, tracking progress of a range of different early childhood education and care outcome measures.
To read the report, visit www.everyonebenefits.org.au
Universal Access discussion starts with permanent funding commitment
Our union believes the current Universal Access program is foundational in providing Australian children with a quality start to their education.
Before any consideration of broadening the program can be made, a permanent funding commitment is essential. Current funding will expire at the end of 2017 unless federal, state and territory governments agree to extend support for the program.
Failure to permanently invest in Universal Access puts children’s educational futures and the livelihoods of employees in community kindergartens at risk.
This article was extracted from the September 2016 edition of Early Words.