3-year-old preschool is the key to changing student performance
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3-year-old preschool is the key to changing student performance

by Freya Lucas

December 05, 2019

The decline in the academic performance of Australian school children, as shown in the latest release of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, should be a driver for urgent action in the early learning sphere, Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has said. 


As a result of the decline in performance, next week’s meeting of the Education Council should focus on improving educational outcomes for young Australians, starting with early learning, because, according to ECA CEO Samantha Page, “it is going to take a much bigger effort than school-based reform alone to turn the ship around.”


The PISA results show that Australian students have fallen below the OECD average in maths, and have dropped in global rankings in reading and science. Correcting this must begin in the early years, Ms Page said, with an investment in early learning required in order to lift student results at 15 years of age. 


“Australia’s investment in early learning is below the OECD average” she said, noting that as a result, one in five children begin school developmentally vulnerable, as measured by the Australian Early Development Census. This figure jumps to two in five when speaking about the vulnerability of First Nations children. 


“These children are not equipped to thrive and learn from their first day at school. The most effective way to lift student performance at school is to ensure all children have access to quality early learning for at least two years before they start school,” Ms Page noted. 


Citing the recently published State of early learning in Australia report, ECA said that while 90 per cent of children classified as being in their year before school (typically four years of age) are enrolled in a preschool program, only 59 per cent of three-year olds are enrolled – a gap Australia “needs to close”. 


Previous evidence from Sue Pascoe AM and Professor Deb Brennan, delivered in the 2017 Lifting our Game review highlighted that in order for Australia to lift its educational performance, children needed to be participating in quality early childhood education. In so doing, children would arrive at school ready and equipped to learn, which in turn would lift NAPLAN results and PISA scores. 


At the time the report was published, the reviewers concluded that children who participate in high-quality early childhood education are more likely to complete year 12 and are less likely to repeat grades or require additional support. 


High-quality early childhood education also has broader impacts; it is linked with higher levels of employment, income and financial security, improved health outcomes and reduced crime. It helps build the skills children will need for the jobs of the future, they noted. 


In terms of economic impact, ECA drew on a recent analysis commissioned by The Front Project. The model looked at the impact of the current Australian system, which provides an early education program for 15 hours a week — delivered by a Bachelor qualified teacher — in the year before school. 


It found that this system offers a significant return on investment (ROI) of 1:2. For every dollar invested now, Australia receives $2 back over a child’s life. The report also stated that extending this to two years before school will increase the economic benefit. 


Ahead of the Education Council meeting, Ms Page and ECA called on all Council members to agree to a rollout of three-year-old preschool across the country in order to prepare children for a lifetime of learning and achievement through two years of high quality and affordable early learning in the years before school. 


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