What is currently happening
Australia currently has a national preschool program for all children (around four years old) in the year before school – a significant reform that started in 2008 and now provides 15 hours of preschool, delivered by a qualified early childhood teacher.
What needs to happen
It is now time to extend this to three-year-old children, so that all children can access two years of preschool. Early childhood peak bodies, experts and advocates have been calling for an expansion of Universal Access to 3 year olds in their submissions to the Productivity Commission and in pre-budget submissions to state, territory and federal governments.
Challenges to face
For nearly two thirds of Australian 3 year olds, participation in early education and care is the norm. However, only a small proportion of 3 year olds are enrolled in a program led by an early childhood teacher and the children most likely to miss out are the ones who will benefit most. There is no national policy or funding to support access to a preschool program for all 3 year olds. In establishing a second year of preschool, the challenge is to:
Make sure all three-year-olds receive the right amount of sufficiently high quality preschool that will have a sustained impact on their development.
Ensure the children currently missing out because of financial or other barriers have the opportunity to participate.
Nearly a quarter of Australian children start school without the foundations they need to take advantage of learning opportunities at school. And our school systems are struggling to help them catch up.
Report author Stacey Fox stressed she was not saying pre-school education should be compulsory for three-year-olds but the evidence showed that 15 hours attendance a week from the age of three made a big difference. “The research shows that two years of pre-school provides all children with an extra dose of developmental enrichment,” she said.
Learning through play
Dr Fox says ‘“preschool programs are as much about helping children learn to get along with others, to be creative and collaborative problem solvers, and to understand and talk about their emotions as they are about supporting the foundations of literacy, numeracy and science. Skilled educators use teaching strategies that are appropriate for the age of the child. They extend children’s thinking, encourage them to ask questions, engage them in conversations about things that excite them, and integrate learning into play and exploration.”
The co-authors say research shows learning – including for social and emotional skills – is often sequential where foundational skills and knowledge are mastered before moving on, therefore it wouldn’t be effective to just implement a preschool program for four-year-olds a year earlier. They note the curious nature of three-year-olds means hands-on, active learning approaches work best and we need to think about a child’s learning as a continuum from ‘emerging’ to ‘mastery’, providing scaffolding along the way.
“Three year olds are eager to try and master new skills, such as how to climb up the stairs of the slide, how to propel themselves on a swing, how to paint, draw, or to build with blocks. Mastery learning requires opportunities to practise things again and again, with the support and encouragement of others. This suggests that constantly changing the experiences that are provided is not in children’s best interests. Three year olds will want to revisit activities or experiences over and over and, while the adults may be “bored”, the children will find them interesting because they want to master the learning or skill that is involved.”
Transition to school
Samantha Page from Early Childhood Australia agreed with the recommendation to extend preschool access. "Children who go to a quality preschool are much more likely to make a successful transition into school," she said. "We know that we have nearly a quarter of children starting school at a disadvantage to their peers, that means they're coming into school behind where their peers are and it's fairly difficult for those children to catch up. In fact most of them don't and we can correct that by investing more in the preschool years."
Our Education minister...
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said he welcomed the discussion about extending preschool. "I've been speaking publicly about extending preschool to three year olds for nearly a year. It's a complex issue in terms of what settings it should be delivered in and for what hours as well as how it is funded," he said. "Nonetheless we are looking at international models and will engage with state leaders who have a prime responsibility in the delivery and funding of any preschool expansion."
Senator Birmingham said the Government's focus now was trying to pass the savings needed to pay for the planned overhaul of the child care and early education system.
Recommendations from the report
The report recommends Federal and State governments investigate national implementation of a three-year-old program. It says that would bring Australia into line with most developed countries which provide two years of pre-school. Dr Fox said other OECD countries had extended preschool and educational outcomes had improved. "We've looked across the international research literature. We've spoken to preschool teachers and child development experts in Australia and there's an overwhelming consensus that two years of preschool gives children the best start," Dr Fox said. "All of the evidence shows that two years of high-quality preschool is one of the best ways to amplify children's learning and development."
The Conversation sums up this issue perfectly, “we have achieved near-universal enrolment in preschool for four year olds in the past five years. We can do the same thing for three year olds”.
For those of you who are settled in, here’s some further reading...