Families most in need have access to fewer and often lower quality early education and care programs. This is despite growing investment in early childhood education and care and rhetoric from Australian governments about supporting disadvantaged children.
Governments around the world make significant investments in early childhood education and care programs, like child care and kindergarten, because of their potential to impact children’s learning and development and boost productivity in the long-term. High quality early childhood and care programs can narrow persistent school achievement gaps due to family socioeconomic status (SES). New research from the US shows that these gaps can even be closed in the short-term.
School achievement gaps attributed to family SES, however, are not narrowing in Australia. This has serious implications for equity, as well as lifelong productivity and outcomes.
Seeking education: willing to travel?
New research that I undertook with colleagues at the University of Melbourne explores the availability of early childhood programs in less affluent neighbourhoods. For the first time, our research is trying to find out if high quality early childhood programs are equally available in all neighbourhoods.
Intuitively we know which suburbs are well off and which ones are struggling. Evidence from the US tells us that in poor neighbourhoods, there are often fewer services and resources – including child care.
One reason to explain this pattern may be that families living together in neighbourhoods tend to be similar, and that families from low SES backgrounds tend to use fewer early childhood programs.
Our research shows that Australian families travel very short distances to get to early childhood education programs. More than half of families travel less than 2.9km: less than previously thought with some studies previously considering programs more than 40km away as accessible by families.
We also know that there are more long day care programs available in wealthier areas in Australia. Low SES areas have up to 25 per cent less child care (long day care) places compared to high SES areas.
Importantly our research shows that higher quality programs tend to be located in higher SES neighbourhoods. Programs operating in the least advantaged areas, on average, exhibit less concept development, modelling of language, and provision of feedback. This is a real concern because these elements of quality contribute to the cognitive and academic performance of children.
Facing up to the challenge
While Australia wants early childhood programs to contribute to better outcomes for all children, the highest quality programs are located in places where the most vulnerable children are least likely to access them.
We need to meet this challenge with a two-pronged approach:
Continue to improve the quality of all early childhood programs:
- The National Quality Framework, which was introduced in 2012, brings all early childhood programs together. This is helping drive continuous quality improvement and consistency across services
- Increased government leadership is required to ensure all children are exposed to the highest quality programs. We need to get beyond the current policy debate that focuses on reducing the price of child care (e.g. through the number of educators per child) and providing flexible program options (e.g. providing subsidy for au pairs or hourly billing for services) – that are unlikely to contribute to improved quality.
Provide more support and resource to the least advantaged areas to increase program participation and quality:
- We can reduce participation barriers by lowering the out-of-pocket price of programs (potentially to zero) for low-income families and relaxing rules that mean disadvantaged families are eligible for fewer subsided hours of child care.
- Programs in low SES areas that include vulnerable children should be model programs of the highest quality. We can invest in the development and retention of high quality educators, and support the introduction of innovative pedagogical practices, such as the Abecedarian Approach Australia (3a).
This article is based on new research from the E4Kids study. The study is led by the University of Melbourne, in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology, the University of London, The University of Toronto, and the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.
E4Kids is funded by the Australian Research Council (Grant LP0990200), the Victorian Government Department of Education and Training, and the Queensland Government Department of Education and Training.
The E4Kids study concludes in December 2015. The final report is due to be released in 2016.
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