In 2008, Australia committed to providing all children with access to 15 hours a week of high quality early childhood education for 40 weeks in the year before school.
A study led by Meredith O’Connor examined the trends in preschool attendance from 2008 to 2011 after these significant national reforms were introduced.
The authors used data collected with the AEDC, the Australian adaptation of the Early Development Instrument. The data was collected in 2009 and 2012, reflecting preschool attendance in 2008 and 2011.
Children: 261,147 (97.5% of estimated five-year-old population)
Children: 289,973 (96.5% of the estimated five-year-old population)
A child’s preschool attendance was measured by the AEDC question “In the year before entering school has this child been in non-parental care on a regular basis and/or attended any other educational program?”
If teachers answered “no” children were categorized as parental care only. If teachers answered “yes” children were then categorized into a list of specific types of early childhood education settings. For the current study, the relevant categories included either preschool or a day care center with a preschool program. Children could be categorized as attending multiple settings.
What did they find?
Overall, preschool attendance was relatively stable from 2008 to 2011, with only a slight decrease of 73.90% to 73.35% over the time period. There was a very slight increase in attendance at dedicated preschools (from 59.23% to 60.33%), and a small decrease in attendance at day care centers with a preschool program (from 21.81% to 16.36).
While there was a significant increase in the proportion of children attending preschool between 2008 and 2011 for most states, there was a significant decrease in the proportion of children attending preschool for New South Wales (from 71.25% to 67.98%) and Queensland (from 57.00% to 49.16%).
Not all groups of children attended preschool at the same levels. Preschool attendance of any kind was substantially lower at both time points for children from non-English speaking and Indigenous backgrounds and from disadvantaged communities, relative to the total population. For example, 63.90% of children from non-English speaking backgrounds and 60.43% of children from Indigenous backgrounds attended preschool compared to 73.35% of the total population. These levels were similar in 2008.
In contrast, preschool attendance increased slightly for children from remote communities (68.46% in 2008 versus 71.35% in 2011), and decreased slightly for children from the most disadvantaged communities (67.25% in 2008 versus 64.67% in 2011).
What does it mean?
Although most Australian children attend a preschool program in the year before starting school universal preschool participation has not yet been achieved. More concerning, children from non-English speaking or Indigenous backgrounds, or living in disadvantaged communities were all less likely to attend preschool than their peers. Efforts at both the national and local level are needed to remove barriers to preschool access and attendance.