Vulnerable preschoolers slipping through the cracks: new research

Vulnerable preschoolers slipping through the cracks: new research

Many preschoolers are missing out on the early childhood education they are entitled to. A report led by Professor Linda J Harrison, from Macquarie School of Education, explains why.

In 2007, the Australian government promised funding for four-year-old children to attend 600 hours of face-to-face learning with trained teachers in the year before starting school.

Yet a study by researchers from the Macquarie School of Education reveals that many families from disadvantaged backgrounds miss out on this opportunity.

The research team collected and analysed four terms of weekly attendance rates for 971 preschool-aged children enrolled in a centre or school-based preschool or long day care in NSW. The data shows that 40 per cent of children in low socio-economic status (SES) communities attended their early childhood education (ECE) program for less than four terms in the year before school.

Part of the reason, according to their early childhood teachers and providers, was non-fee costs such as transport, clothing, food, school bags and excursions, as well as specialised support for children with additional needs.

Other factors raised by educators included parents’ lack of awareness of the potential benefits of early childhood education; issues related to comfort, trust and cultural fit; or parents’ concerns about their child/ren’s abilities to cope with or benefit from preschool.

What are they missing out on?

National data gathered every three years by the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) show that children who have attended a preschool program are less likely to be rated as vulnerable in areas of physical, social, cognitive and communicative development in their first year of school.

Professor Harrison explains: “There is evidence that attending a quality ECE program is particularly beneficial for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Over the longer term, developmental vulnerability may become entrenched with a greater risk of poorer outcomes in school.”

Professor Harrison’s research, Supporting Participation in Early Childhood Education (SPiECE) of Children from Low Socio-Economic Status Backgrounds 2018-2022, was a response to the NSW Department of Education’s need to better understand and improve the participation of children from low socio-economic backgrounds.

The study began by identifying preschools and long day care centres in three communities in NSW that had higher than average rates of childhood developmental vulnerability and high levels of disadvantage.

Results showed wide variations in attendance patterns, ranging from two to 1894 hours per school year, with an average of 480.5 hours attended, well below the prescribed 600. Children who were enrolled in preschool settings were more likely to attend for all four terms in the year before school, but attendance patterns of children in long day care were more consistent and for more hours per week.

Findings were submitted to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Early Childhood Education & Care (ECEC) and referred to in its draft report. The commission’s final report is due next month.

Bringing families to the table

A key feature of the SPiECE project was to provide professional learning opportunities for educators to support preschool attendance in their own communities.

“Our broader aim has been to build the evidence base and support future policy-making on efficient and sustainable improvement through gathering evidence on the measurable impact of non-fee interventions on participation rates,” says Professor Harrison.

There are positive signs. The SPiECE project provided mentoring and professional learning that encouraged and supported early childhood leaders and educators to build positive relationships with families, to better understand ways of working with families living in complex situations, to be proactive in promoting regular attendance, and to engage families in their child/ren’s learning.

A unique component of the program design, says Professor Harrison, was to provide access to Community Initiatives Funding (CIF) so that services could offer practical means of addressing specific family concerns.

“What was surprising, and also rewarding, was the diversity of ways that educators made use of the CIF and how targeted they were in addressing specific concerns that they identified in their local communities,” she says.

These included everything from purchasing the required clothing, drink bottles, insulated lunch boxes, or hats; to training staff in assisting children with disabilities; to providing separate space where educators and families could work together to complete forms and documentation; to designing and distributing flyers on the importance of early childhood education.

The Commonwealth Government’s Preschool Reform Agenda (2022–2025) and new initiatives by the state governments aim to maximise the benefits of preschool through attendance targets that ensure they receive at least 600 hours of early childhood education in the year before school.

“Quality early childhood education provides a holistic, inclusive program that supports young children’s learning, development and wellbeing,” says Professor Harrison.

The above story originally appeared as a media release from Macquire University.