Australia is below the OECD average in investment in early childhood education, and our political leaders must prioritise the care and education needed by children before they reach five, writes Jesuit Social Services’ Policy and Advocacy volunteer TONY SANTOSPIRITO.

This year’s report Lifting Our Game: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools through Early Childhood Interventions, published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, emphasised the vital importance of quality education and childcare in the first five years of a child’s life in achieving positive outcomes for children in school and adult life.

It is time Australia attaches priority to this fact and makes it the basis for providing the care and education needed by children in these years.

Between 85 to 90 per cent of brain development happens in the first five years of a child’s life.  Their environment, experiences and relationships in the first 1,000 days from conception to age two are particularly significant. During these years children learn to communicate, get along with others, control and adapt their behaviour, emotion and thinking, establishing the foundations for future life skills and success.  On the other hand, during these years children are at their most vulnerable stage.

Investment in high quality services for children and parents during the early years can have positive impacts not only on health and wellbeing but also in reducing the likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system. The graphs below highlight data in the NT which show lower attendance rates in preschool for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and the over-representation of 10-17 year olds under youth justice supervision.

However, according to a Melbourne University evaluation, “despite continued investment in a range of education reforms, national and international assessments have found little improvement in Australian student achievement outcomes.”

Australia is below the OECD average in investment in early childhood education.  While all Australian governments are investing in the early childhood system, and recently the Federal Labor Party has committed to subsidising preschool for all three year olds, gaps remain.

In some geographical areas services are lacking, especially for parents seeking early childhood education and care for babies and toddlers.  Those who are not enrolled in education and care services are disproportionately children who are experiencing disadvantage.  We know from our research into locational disadvantage, Dropping off the Edge, that a small number of communities experience multiple forms of disadvantage.  Even if three year old preschool becomes the norm, Australia lags behind the OECD average for both enrolment and time spent in four year old preschool.  Australian four year olds spent an average of 584 hours per year in pre-primary education, about the bare minimum, compared to the OECD average of 911 hours.  Australia ranked 23 out of 35 OECD countries in four year old enrolment in early childhood education.

Studies over decades have shown that high quality early education and care has a substantial, positive impact on school outcomes for all children.  Two years of preschool has significantly increased benefits compared to one year.  Early childhood education breaks down the barriers to educational success faced by children in disadvantaged circumstances.  Children who attend early childhood and care outperform children who do not.  A child who performs well at school is more likely to stay at school, go onto further study, and have better employment prospects.  Early childhood interventions, especially those that enhance self-regulation, are likely to bring about a greater return on investment than harm reduction programs targeting adolescents.

Quality early childhood education and care, delivered by a skilled and stable workforce, is a sound long-term investment.  Some analyses show returns ranging from $2.6 for every dollar spent up to as much as $17.

According to the AIFS report, “investments that occur early in a child’s life have the potential not only to increase health, happiness and wellbeing in the here and now but also to offset future costs associated with remediating potential negative impacts.

“Such interventions include pre-natal and infant home visitation programs, family-focused parenting programs and high quality early childhood education and care provision.”

We call for increased investment across Australia to ensure all children have access to quality early childhood education and care in their first five years.