The standard of teaching in Australian preschools is ''very poor'', a government-funded national study into the quality of early education has found.
The finding from the E4Kids study suggests children may be attending little more than glorified playgroup, despite research indicating that early learning makes a crucial difference to their long-term development.
The national study of 2500 children found that on a scale of one to seven, the quality of instruction for four-year olds - regardless of whether they attend preschool, a childcare centre or family day care - averages a ranking of just two.
This puts Australia on par with the US, which has an unregulated sector considered to be of poor quality, according to Professor Karen Thorpe, one of the study's research directors.
Professor Thorpe said the results of the study were ''shocking''.
We might see a nice environment, but there is a low level of quality interactions. [Staff] don't see the opportunity to teach. It's a very poor story in terms of the educational content of these programs.
''There are few examples of intentional teaching,'' said Professor Thorpe, who is also professor of psychology at Queensland University of Technology. ''The average of all [services] is very poor.''
Some parents interviewed by E4Kids researchers described their experience of preschool as "glorified playgroup". Professor Thorpe said the researchers observed ''constant'' missed opportunities for teaching children.
''We might see a nice environment, but there is a low level of quality interactions. [Staff] don't see the opportunity to teach. It's a very poor story in terms of the educational content of these programs.''
This is the first major finding from the $16.8 million federal and state-government funded E4Kids study, conducted by the Queensland University of Technology and the University of Melbourne, which is following 2500 children for five years to determine how the quality of their early education affects their future learning, development and wellbeing. While children from NSW are not participating in the study, Professor Thorpe said the results provided an accurate national picture.
Professor Thorpe said the overall results of the first year of the study revealed that early childhood education and care services in Australia were ''mediocre''.
E4Kids researchers observed participating children for up to five hours, twice a year. Services were assessed on their emotional support, classroom organisation and instructional support. Across the three categories, services average a score of 3.92 out of seven.
''We don't have too many exceptionally bad services, but we don't have too many exceptionally good services either,'' Professor Thorpe said. She suggested this was because past early childhood sector regulations only required services to meet a minimum standard to be accredited.
While learning to socialise with other children is an important part of a preschooler's development, increasingly expectations relate to them being ready for school. In NSW, the percentage of four-year-olds attending preschool has risen to about 86 per cent and the federal government has made it a priority to achieve universal attendance for four-year-olds.
Community-based preschools, long day care and government pre-schools have previously run their own programs in NSW, although a national curriculum is being introduced.
Christine Legg, the chief executive of KU Children's Services, one of the oldest community-based preschool groups in NSW, said she was not surprised by the E4Kids findings.
''It's a really good reflection of the sector at the moment,'' Ms Legg said.
She said that some less qualified staff misinterpreted the previous preschool teaching guidelines as ''sit back and wait and the children will learn by osmosis''.
New federal government national quality standards came into effect on January 1 and include lifting the minimum standard of qualifications for staff, education benchmarks and better staff-to-child ratios.
Professor Thorpe said she hoped the new standards would improve quality in preschools.
''The new standards are asking us to work to optimal levels as aspirational. You'd hope this would shift quality,'' she said. ''Research suggests the early environment does make a difference to a child in the long term.''
A spokeswoman for the federal Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, said the description ''glorified playgroup'' only ''trivialises the important work being done by early childhood teachers and is completely wrong''.
The spokeswoman said by 2013 all Australian children would have access to at least 15 hours of early childhood education in the year before school from a university-trained early childhood teacher.