Two years are better than one

Stacey Fox

A child’s brain develops more in their first five years than it will for the rest of their life. During this time, vital foundations are laid that will equip children to be capable and confident learners, to have good executive function and emotional regulation, build positive relationships with others, and participate in society throughout their lives. Quality early education plays a key role in supporting children’s development.

Universal access to two years of a high-quality preschool (or kindergarten) program is one of the best ways to amplify children’s learning and development, and to lift educational achievement in Australia. Providing two years of high-quality preschool programs, delivered by skilled and well-supported early childhood educators, gives every child the opportunity to reach their potential and be a real contributor to Australia’s social and economic prosperity.

Quality early education plays a key role in development

High-quality preschool programs improve children’s early cognitive, social and emotional skills, strengthening their readiness for school. These early gains are sustained, as the impact of high-quality preschool continues to be evident in primary school academic assessments, social and emotional wellbeing in adolescence, and high school graduation rates.

Since the introduction of Universal Access to preschool in 2009, Australia has made progress in the proportion of children enrolled in a preschool program in the year before school. But most of our peer countries in the OECD already provide at least two years of preschool and have done so for decades. Investing in an additional year of preschool is the next big policy opportunity for Australia.

Each year, at least 62,000 children start school experiencing significant vulnerabilities in key areas of development (Australian Early Development Census 2016). This is 22 per cent of all children, more than one in five. Half of those children are vulnerable in multiple areas.

Attending the right amount of a high-quality preschool program is one of the few proven strategies for lifting outcomes for all children. Its effectiveness is borne out in Australian and international research, with leading Australian child development researchers concluding that “preschool attendance was consistently associated with the lowest odds of developmental vulnerability”.

Key findings from the international research literature are that:

  • starting early and staying in for longer is beneficial for many children — studies from Europe, the US and UK show consistent benefits from two rather than one year of preschool
  • disadvantaged children benefit the most — a range of studies highlight substantially greater impacts on cognitive, social and emotional outcomes for more disadvantaged children
  • the quality of programs matters — the impact of high-quality programs persists over time
  • research on the long-term impact of preschool highlights the interaction of academic and social and emotional skills on lifetime education and employment.

Starting preschool at age three and attending for two years appears to have the greatest impact on child outcomes. For disadvantaged children in particular, one year of preschool is not an adequate dose for closing achievement gaps that are already present at age four.

High levels of developmental vulnerability in a classroom, or significant variation in children’s underpinning skills and knowledge, make a teacher’s role even more complex and places additional pressure on schools to adequately meet the needs of all children. Children experiencing developmental vulnerability are likely to need significantly greater support in the classroom.

Universal access to high-quality preschool for all children is one of the most effective strategies to help children start school on a more equal footing. There is growing recognition and government support for the important role of teachers, and the importance of providing appropriate training and support to enable effective, high-impact teaching. However, this recognition has not been equally extended to early childhood educators, who — in spite of their pivotal influence during a fundamental stage in children’s learning and development — are often still regarded as child-minders rather than educators.

Introducing an additional year of a preschool program, targeted at three year olds, will require a workforce strategy to boost the number of early childhood educators, and resources to support existing educators to deliver a high-quality preschool program that engages and meets the needs of three year olds.

There is a clear opportunity to leverage high current participation rates by three year olds, existing investment in early education and care, the ongoing roll-out and future components of the National Quality Framework, and the existing National Partnership Agreement between the Commonwealth and states that provides preschool in the year before school, up for renegotiation this year. It is appropriate and feasible to build on the platform provided by the existing service system — including long day care and sessional preschools — to provide universal access to preschool in the two years before formal schooling begins.

Dr Stacey Fox is Acting Policy Program Director at the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University. She co-authored Preschool – Two Years are Better Than One: Developing a Universal Preschool Program for Australian 3 Year Olds – Evidence, Policy and Implementation.

This is an edited version of the article. Click here for the full article as it appeared in the JPL. Reading the JPL can contribute to meeting teacher-identified professional learning hours for Maintenance of Accreditation as well as professional learning goals for the Performance and Development Framework.

The article was first published in Professional Voice, Vol 11, Issue 3, Summer 2017 .