How is it that in a country as prosperous as Australia, one in five children are developmentally at risk by the time they start school?
What’s more, the problem is twice as great for disadvantaged groups.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a greater risk of poor health, social, emotional, cognitive and language problems that affect their educational progress, literacy, numeracy, and long-term social skills, employment prospects, health, adjustment and criminality.
This can have lifelong impact – the 2012 OECD report reveals that 20% of Australians do not have good basic literacy skills.
There are two aspects of the child’s early environment that can be changed and which shape a child’s long-term outcomes:
The extent to which families offer children a nurturing environment that provides learning opportunities.
The early childhood education and care that children may receive out of the home.
What parents do is more important than who parents are
Longitudinal studies have shown that getting learning help at home and going to preschool has a positive impact on literacy and numeracy development in early primary school.
A study involving 4000 children in the UK found parents who provided learning support at home had a positive impact on their child’s cognitive, language and socio-emotional development, regardless of the parent’s class or educational background.
This can be anything from reading to the child, library visits, singing songs, reading poems or nursery rhymes.
The powerful influence of the early home learning environment was apparent in the preschool period, and when children started school, and continued right through to the end of school.
Improving the home learning environment
When looking at children who performed well against the odds, case studies revealed that some disadvantaged families provided a very good early home learning environment and this was a critical factor in their child’s later success.
Closing the gap in educational attainment between children from affluent and disadvantaged homes is increasingly seen as a major societal goal.
Improving the home learning environment of socially and financially disadvantaged children would be a worthwhile focus for policy to boost children’s development in the early years, so as to support their later academic and social achievement through their lives.
The UK longitudinal studies also found that, two to three years of high-quality early years education can provide up to eight months of developmental advantage at the start of school in literacy compared to children who enter school with no preschool experience, with similar effects on other cognitive and social outcomes.
The quality of the early childhood education and care was linked to staff training and qualifications, and higher quality was related to better outcomes for children.
Where to now?
Australia currently provides 600 hours over the year – or around 15 hours a week – in early education provision for four year olds.
It should be a policy priority to extend this to three year olds. This would bring Australia more in line with those countries, such as the UK, taking active policy steps to planning for long-term economic development through optimising the skills of their populations.
Australia has a good early years quality framework, but this can be built on by improving the competence of the early years workforce through in-service professional development and further recruitment of more qualified staff.
Australia could look to emulate the best in the world through enhanced provision for the 40% most disadvantaged children and through integrating all services, health, family support, childcare and early education, to optimise the efficiency of services for young children and their families.
Such changes would bring immediate benefits in wellbeing and long-term economic benefits from a population fully equipped to deal with the challenges of a changing world.
Edward Melhuish receives funding from the UK government, OECD and European Community.