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Reform of preschools front and centre in election period

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Research shows that two years of quality preschool sets a child up for success, and happily the issue is gaining traction with politicians Dr Jen Jackson from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy said.

At the heart of improving quality are the almost 200,000 educators who work in Australian early childhood services. Extending preschool to two years places increased pressure on the supply of highly-skilled early childhood educators. In response, both Victoria and NSW have committed to reducing tuition fees for students studying early childhood education. Professional development for existing educators is also among the major workforce development challenges across Australia. We need a consistent national workforce strategy to see these types of solutions adopted across all states.

Education Policy Lead Jackson said despite progress in early childhood reforms, Australia still does not provide an adequate dose of quality preschool to all children, with most children attending only one year of preschool and the quality of education and care varying across the country.

“One in five Australian children are not developmentally on track when they start school, with a widening gap between the most and least advantaged communities. Australia cannot afford to have that gap widen further,”  Jackson said.

“This election is a chance to focus attention back onto the benefits of early learning,” she said. “Part of that commitment needs to be secure, ongoing funding, including for quality improvements, as we have for schools. We’re certainly not at that point yet, but as we head into a federal election campaign, early childhood issues are making some headway on the election agenda.

“A wealth of international research shows that children who attend high-quality preschool programs not only perform better in learning, but also on skills like social competence, vocabulary, and self-control—and that the benefits are greatest for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Leading economists have also shown that investing in early learning and development has much greater return-on-investment than addressing issues later in life.

“The research shows that two or three years of quality preschool can place children nearly eight months ahead in their literacy at entry to school, compared to children with no preschool. Even at age 16, more months spent in preschool has been shown to be associated with higher grades in English, mathematics, and higher examination grades.”

More time in preschool is not about an earlier start to formal learning. High-quality preschools offer play-based experiences that build on children’s interests, and provide opportunities for them to develop skills like cooperation, concentration, problem-solving, and self-control. These skills then set them up for the more structured learning environments that they will encounter when they reach school.

Some Australian governments are acting on this evidence. VictoriaNSW and the ACT have all committed to subsidising universal access to three-year-old preschool, coming into effect over the next decade. Interestingly, these policies have been introduced by both Labor and Liberal Governments, indicating clear potential for cross-partisan support for two years of preschool.

Leading up to the 2019 election campaign, the Australian Labor Party has pledged $1.75 billion to provide federal support for two years of preschool. The Coalition Government has not committed to three-year-old preschool, but has pledged another year of funding to four-year old preschool.

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