Australian Early Development Census 2021 - A summary of key findings

Australian Early Development Census 2021 – A summary of key findings

by Jason Roberts

April 05, 2022

The latest version of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) which covers the period 2018 to 2021 has been published outlining the impacts of COVID-19 on the developmental status of children who are attending their first year of full-time education. 

 

The Census, which is conducted every three years, measures children’s development across five key domains: 

 

  • physical health and wellbeing, 
  • social competence, 
  • emotional maturity, 
  • language and cognitive skills, and; 
  • communication skills and general knowledge.

 

Importantly, the data is aggregated to provide an overall population measure, as opposed to individual measures for each child and it therefore provides a useful guide to assess the portion of children who were ready to transition to school, and by default the portion who were not ready for school and who are therefore considered to be developmentally vulnerable. 

 

The most recent release was of particular note because it collected data relating to the the period over which the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, a period full of disruptions which may have impacted children’s development negatively.

 

Key findings of 2021 AEDC by domain

 

The 2021 AEDC data shows the majority of children were identified as ‘developmentally on track’ for each of the five AEDC domains, which is consistent with the five previous AEDC releases.

 

However, this year’s census did include some notable deviations from previous years with the percentage of children who were considered on track across all domains falling for the first time since 2009 from 55.4 per cent to 54.8 power cent. 

 

There was also evidence of a small uptick in children considered to be developmentally vulnerable with those registering a vulnerability in one or more domains increasing from 21.7 per cent to 22.0 percent and those in two or more domains increasing from 11.0 per cent and to 11.4 per cent. 

 

  • The language and cognitive skills (school-based) domain saw the most significant shift in 2021. The percentage of children who were on track decreased from 84.4 per cent in 2018 to 82.6 per cent in 2021 and the percentage of children who were developmentally vulnerable increased from 6.6 per cent in 2018 to 7.3 per cent in 2021.

 

  • The physical health and wellbeing domain saw a small increase in the percentage of children who are developmentally vulnerable; from 9.6 per cent in 2018 to 9.8 per cent in 2021.

 

  • The social competence domain was the only domain where the level of vulnerability decreased (from 9.8 per cent in 2018 to 9.6 per cent in 2021). The percentage of children on track on this domain, meanwhile, improved slightly from 75.8 per cent in 2018 to 75.9 per cent in 2021.

 

  • The communication skills and general knowledge domain saw a decrease in the percentage of children on track falling by 0.2 percentage points to 77.1 per cent in 2021. The percentage of vulnerable children increased from 8.2 per cent in 2018 to 8.4 per cent in 2021.

 

  • The emotional maturity domain also saw a slight increase in the percentage of children developmentally vulnerable (from 8.4 per cent in 2018 to 8.5 per cent in 2021) and a decrease in the percentage of children on track on this domain (from 77.1 per cent in 2018 to 77.0 per cent in 2021).

 

Key observations and conclusions of 2021 AEDC

 

Overall the outputs from the AEDC highlight the important contribution the early childhood education and care sector makes to children’s early development demonstrating that when children have a strong start, it supports them to do well in schooling and beyond.

 

“While our early years systems are some of the most comprehensive in the world – with strong universal services and targeted supports that are making a difference for many children and families – there is always room for improvement,” the AEDC Executive Summary noted. 

 

This years reports highlights the following key observations and conclusions:

 

Impact of COVID-19:

 

  • The percentage of children on track in their early literacy skills declined over the period however the changes in the AEDC data are largely constrained to this domain

 

  • The lost ground is most evident where there was existing developmental disadvantage.

 

These changes in the AEDC highlight the importance of ensuring younger cohorts are well supported over the coming years with a focus on mitigating impacts for families most affected in their access to employment, social support, and early education and care.

 

Equity trends in developmental progression:

 

  • 2021 showed for the first time a reversal of the steady increase in the percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children considered to be on track in all five domains, consistent with trends reflected across the broader population. 

 

  • 2021 showed an increased vulnerability across the socio-economic spectrum but more so for children living in the most socio-economically disadvantaged areas, reversing previous progress. 

 

  • Since 2009, there have been improvements in the percentage of children with a language background other than English who are developmentally on track across all domains however this cohort also has the highest rate of vulnerability in their communication skills and general knowledge

 

  • In 2021, there was an increase in developmental vulnerability for children living in regional and remote areas, driven primarily by fewer children being on track in their language and cognitive skills (school-based).

 

The report also contains a comprehensive breakdown of AEDC trends for states and territories across Australia and broader demographic trends that are in play. 

 

To read this year’s AEDC report please click here

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