Why high-quality research matters as much as high quality preschool
The Sector > Research > Why high-quality research matters as much as high quality preschool

Why high-quality research matters as much as high quality preschool

by Dr Trina Hinkley, Prof Tricia Eadie, Ms Jane Hunt

February 07, 2023

As the Australian Government, and various states and territories, begin 2023 with significant early childhood education and care (ECEC) agendas, researchers and policymakers must ensure that we are having a mature and evidence-informed discussion about this vitally important area of social and economic policy. 


While differing views and research are important to ensure optimal policy decisions are being made, we need to place individual pieces of research in the context of a growing body of work that highlights the academic and developmental benefits of early education.


Preschool in Australia


First, we need to acknowledge the complexity of the current system. Australia’s ECEC system is diverse and vibrant, but it is often difficult to compare different service delivery models across jurisdictions. 


In this complex context, it’s not surprising that there is inconsistency in some of the data reported.


However, evidence identifies benefits from ECEC to children’s school readiness, cognition, language, health, wellbeing, and academic development, both in the short- and long-term. Furthermore, economic analysis of participation in ECEC shows broader benefits, including to families and workforce participation.


With growing recognition of this evidence, governments around Australia have been investing more heavily in ECEC, with most jurisdictions embarking on their own expansion plans.


How data doesn’t always tell the whole story


A recent article based on a study from researchers at the Melbourne Institute stated that while ECEC might have benefits such as supporting workforce participation, it calls into question the benefits of universal preschool for children, finding that when rolled out to everyone, preschool provides no benefit to children’s school readiness, or has a negative effect.


This study was based on good quality, population-level data – the Australian Census and the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC). The researchers wanted to see what changes happened to children’s school readiness, as determined by the AEDC, when more children attended kindergarten.


However, even good-quality data don’t always tell the whole story, especially when considering the complexity of Australia’s ECEC system.


Using the Australian Census and AEDC data, the researchers claimed that preschool either provides no benefit to children’s school readiness or has a negative effect. That means, as more children went to preschool, children performed either no differently or they performed more poorly on their school readiness assessment as determined by the developmental domains in the AEDC data.


Interestingly, they found that there were differences between states. For NSW and Victoria, increases in the number of children attending preschool resulted in no changes in AEDC results. However, increases in the number of children attending preschool in other states and territories were associated with a decrease in children’s assessments on the AEDC. 


These findings suggest that attending preschool is not what creates poorer outcomes on the AEDC. If the conclusions the Melbourne institute has drawn were true, suggesting that universal preschool created poorer school readiness, the results would be more consistent across all states. It’s more likely that differences are caused by other characteristics. This could be access, quality, differences in programming or something else.


Drawing different conclusions


Other research exploring associations between preschool attendance and AEDC outcomes reports different conclusions to the study above. 


For instance, a study undertaken by researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute used AEDC data to help understand the impact of preschool on children’s development. That study used data from more than 260,000 children. It compared children who attended preschool to those in other forms of care, including those cared for by their parents or caregivers.


Findings from that study showed that children who attended preschool were 20-30 per cent less likely to be assessed as being vulnerable (in the bottom 10 per cent of children) on four of the five domains on the AEDC. 


Other studies have reported similar findings on three of the five AEDC domains.


These studies, collectively, suggest that attending preschool does provide school readiness and developmental benefits to children, even when we only look at one indicator – AEDC domains – as the outcome.


Developmental benefits


The Restacking the Odds team have produced a substantive review exploring benefits of ECEC across a range of areas and for different groups of children. Their findings include showing that two or more years of ECEC provided cognitive, language and academic benefits to attending children. However, no evidence supported impacts on children’s social and emotional skills. 


On the whole, evidence exploring potential impacts of ECEC generally, and preschool more specifically, points to overall benefits for children. There is also evidence of broader social and economic benefits.


Economic benefits


Apart from children’s school readiness and development, there are many outcomes from preschool and ECEC that help to tell a more rounded story.


For instance, a recent economic analysis identified multiple outcomes from preschool that had previously been reported. The analysis explored how those outcomes might provide an economic return. Importantly, many identified outcomes occurred several years or more after children’s actual attendance. 


Combined, the estimated economic benefit of children attending ECEC was a 2-1 return. That is, for every $1 invested, benefits accrued to the value of $2. 


The missing pieces


However, while there is evidence showing the benefits of preschool and broader ECEC, more work needs to be done to broaden the evidence base. For example, many studies to-date rely on small samples using targeted populations of children as the beneficiaries. 


What is missing are the larger, long-term, population studies that capture changes in all children over time in a real-world setting. Only with evidence of universal service delivery in a real-world setting will we be able to determine the potential multiple benefits that stem from ECEC. As the authors of the recent study state “we are not arguing governments should not invest in early education” while we continue to build the evidence base. Rather what is needed is a focus on collecting more rigorous evidence to better understand the impact of universal preschool programs on child development.


Introducing EDGE


In the lead up to the 2018 Victorian election, Premier Daniel Andrews announced a major policy reform – universal three-year-old kindergarten – if Labor was re-elected. This is a first for Australia.


University of Melbourne and The Front Project have partnered to undertake a five-year evaluation of the impact of three-year-old kindergarten in Victoria. 


The evidence generated from this study will lead its field and contribute to a small but growing evidence base exploring impacts of ECEC, and hopefully plug some of the gaps we are seeing across different studies. 

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