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Early education and care: the best start for Australian children?

By 2020 all Australian children should ‘have the best start in life to create a better future for themselves and for the nation.’

That’s the aim of the National Early Childhood Development Strategy developed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), and comes from overwhelming evidence about the vital importance of early learning in shaping children’s brains and their opportunities for healthy and productive lives.

Most Australian children now participate in one or more early childhood education and care (ECEC) programs before they go to school. But increasing access is only one part of the story, according to the Centre for Community Child Health in Melbourne. The quality of those programs is just as critical and a new research project is seeking to measure that, and determine gaps.

******

Measuring quality in early childhood education and care

This article is adapted by Eliza Metcalfe from the Centre for Community Child Health’s Policy Brief: Assessing the quality of early childhood education and care

More than one million Australian children attend early childhood education and care (ECEC). What happens in this care matters: neuroscience research is showing that the experiences children have early in life – and the environments in which they have them – shape the development of their brains and whether they grow up to be healthy and productive members of the community. Participation in ECEC directly affects children’s educational and social development, and in a lasting way.

But just ensuring more children access ECEC is not enough. Participation in high quality programs delivers the greatest benefit for children, particularly for those who face disadvantage. According to UNICEF, improving the quality of ECEC “remains the most potent of all available opportunities for resisting the entrenchment of disadvantage.”

So how do we define and measure quality? There is little empirical evidence about the essential components of quality within ECEC services for young children in an Australian context, however the E4Kids research project based at the University of Melbourne and Queensland University of Technology is providing important early insights.

What is the evidence showing?

E4Kids is a study of 2,600 children from Victoria and Queensland, following them from ages 3-8 years from 2010-2015. The children have been randomly selected from long day care centres, kindergartens, family day care and occasional care services in six diverse metropolitan and regional communities (Melbourne, Brisbane, Shepparton and Mt Isa). The study also involves 150 children who have not participated in ECEC.

The project considers children’s abilities and family backgrounds alongside the quality of ECEC programs, including staff training and resources, and the experiences of children in ECEC settings. It seeks to measure aspects of quality based on interactions between children and adults, the kinds of activities and experiences available for children and observed learning environments. It reports across three domains:

  • emotional support (the positive or negative climate; teachers’ sensitivity and regard for children’s perspectives)
  • organisational support (managing children’s behaviour, productivity, teaching routines), and
  • instructional support (concept development, quality of feedback, language modelling).

The results for the domain of emotional support were generally positive, reflecting good emotional connection between adults and children as well as among children. In organisational support, results were reasonable, with a tendency for good ratings on ‘behaviour management’ (the adult’s ability to provide clear behavioural expectations and prevent and redirect misbehaviour) and ‘productivity’ (the adult’s management of instructional time and routines and provision of activities to engage children in learning).

However, for instructional support, results were generally poor, with fewer than two per cent of observations showing a high level of instructional support. Ratings were lowest in ‘concept development’ (activities that promote and extend children’s thinking skills and understanding) and ‘quality of feedback’ (the extent to which teachers provide feedback to children to expand their understanding and encourage their continued participation). Notably, the majority of scores observed are lower than the (hypothesis) threshold for improvements in children’s learning and development.

What are the implications?

The research findings imply that ECEC services are succeeding in fostering relationships with children, but may be underperforming in terms of educational program and practice.

While this has implications for all children, the results also show a weak but statistically significant socio-economic link: that families who attend services in more affluent areas are receiving higher quality adult-child interactions.

The policy context provided by the National Early Childhood Development Strategy (COAG, 2009) delivers a clear objective in respect of providing ‘better early education services to all children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds’. The evidence of a social gradient in all three domains of staff-child interactions is concerning.

Considerations for policy and programs

– ECEC policy should support programs offering high-quality interactions and instructional support. Evidence shows that educational programs can be improved by focusing on children’s concept development, extending the quality of feedback and language modelling in learning environments. Better instructional support is particularly needed in neighbourhoods that record poorer social and academic achievements.

– Significant investment is required to attract, train and retain a highly qualified, knowledgeable ECEC workforce, able to respond to the learning needs of each child.

– Child outcomes are likely to be enhanced by improving their capacity to develop key concepts about the world around them; and in the ways that educators ensure that children develop their thinking and understanding.

– Further research is required to identify economic and social barriers to the implementation of quality programs that are targeted to advance children’s learning and development. Focus on both demand-side barriers —such as cost — and supply-side barriers — such as training of educators — will provide new evidence on how to address social gradients and inequality and ensure all children have the best start in life.

To read the full Policy Brief and its references, please go to www.rch.org.au/ccch/policybrief/