Early learning the way to ensure a fair go for the next generation


The intense debate about how to deal with our two speed economy and the best way to distribute Australia's wealth among all citizens has yet to penetrate into an equally intense concern about the growing divide in our education system.

We need to realise that Australia's future as a country with ingenuity that can stay ahead of the global pack is at risk because we're failing to give the next generation of Australians a fair chance to learn and achieve from the start.

When it comes to eduction, we are not a country of the fair go. The education gap in Australia between the children of our most well off and those from disadvantaged backgrounds is now worse than the OECD average.

An ABC Lateline investigation into the neuroscience of learning shows that initiatives that provide learning support for disadvantaged children under five are having an impact. There is plenty of research evidence that shows why.

In studies of children from differing socio-economic levels it's been found that by the age of three children from high socio-economic families have more than twice the vocabulary of children being raised in economically disadvantaged environments.

Research compiled by the Centre for Community Child Health in Victoria by Prof Frank Oberklaid shows there is overwhelming evidence that early learning has the most dramatic impact for disadvantaged children:

'Ability gaps between advantaged and other children open up early before schooling begins...Children who start ahead keep accelerating past their peers, widening the gap…The best way to improve the schools is to improve the early environments of the children sent to them.’

So the most effective investment in education is to get more children into pre-school education from three years old, especially disadvantaged and remote kids. It changes their life opportunities and pays off for society.

A US study which tracked disadvantaged children given access to pre-school from the age of three, found that by the time they were 40 they were more likely to have graduated from high school, have jobs and earn higher than average incomes, own their own home, and be less likely to be involved with crime.

The same study found that participation in preschool led to significant savings to society, translating to an economic return of $US17  for every dollar invested by the time participants reached 40 years of age. Investing in early education makes economic sense.

Despite this evidence of the social and economic benefits, in comparison with other OECD nations  a 2006 report showed Australia invests much less in providing high quality early education and care.

We are already experiencing worrying trends in literacy, with 46 per cent of Australian adults with low literacy rates by international standards, meaning they would struggle with everyday tasks such as filling in forms or reading a newspaper.

And there's no evidence this situation will improve for the generation currently at school. One achievement of the Gillard government is in introducing a national assessment of children entering kindergarten the Australian Early Development Index. But it's findings tell us that nearly a quarter of Australian children struggle in some area of development by the time they start school - and it's children from disadvantaged communities who are struggling the most.

Pilot programs featured on Lateline, like The Benevolent Society's Shaping Brains program at our Early Years Centre in Brisbane and the excellent work of the Congress Medical Service Pre-School Readiness Program in the Northern Territory, can show the way. But if we are really to close the education gap and give all Australian kids a fair go, then as a nation much more investment is needed in our children before they start school.

The Federal Government has taken steps in the right direction by committing to providing affordable early education to all four-year-olds for 15 hours per week from next year, but this can only be a first step.

What is needed is a national initiative to ensure that all families can access quality early learning from the age of three – with support to make sure that the most disadvantaged children have guaranteed free places.

It's time we give early education and care the same priority as school education, and invest in it accordingly - as a community, we will all benefit in the long term. 



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