Providing universal access to preschool programs for all three-year-old children could improve academic results in the longer term and prevent the learning gap that sees nearly one in four children not ready for school when they start.
Our research shows that it is an achievable – and high priority – policy goal for Australia.
With two thirds of three-year-olds accessing early education and care (ECEC) services, Australia already has the foundations of a universal preschool program.
Australia currently has a national preschool program for all children (around four years old) in the year before school – a significant reform that started in 2008 and now provides 15 hours of preschool, delivered by a qualified early childhood teacher.
It is now time to extend this to three-year-old children, so that all children can access two years of preschool.
In establishing a second year of preschool, the challenge is to:
Make sure all three-year-olds receive the right amount of sufficiently high quality preschool that will have a sustained impact on their development.
Ensure the children currently missing out because of financial or other barriers have the opportunity to participate.
Nearly a quarter of Australian children start school without the foundations they need to take advantage of learning opportunities at school. And our school systems are struggling to help them catch up.
There is a direct correlation between how wealthy a child's community is and their risk of developmental vulnerability.
Children from low socio-economic status communities are more likely to experience developmental vulnerability – but half of all children who are developmentally vulnerable come from the top three fifths of the income distribution.
There are many children across our communities who need the learning environment preschool programs provide; and all children benefit from opportunities preschool provides to develop and master new skills.
Many children who start school behind their peers struggle to catch up.
At age 24, 26% of young people aren't fully engaged in employment, education or training.
Reduced educational opportunity has lifelong consequences for young people and for the broader community and economy.
Two years of high-quality preschool is one of the most effective strategies we have to change the trajectories of children.
It is a key strategy for investing in the most important economic asset we have - the capabilities of the Australian people.
Two years of preschool have more impact than one
For the children most likely to experience developmental vulnerability, two years of high-quality preschool can be transformative. But it has positive impacts for all children.
There are many studies that show the long-term benefits of two years of preschool for children of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
A landmark UK study showed that students who attended two to three years of preschool obtained higher overall scores in their end-of-school exams, better grades in English and in maths, and took final year exams in more subjects.
Analysis of international test results (Programme for International Student Assessment - PISA, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study - PIRLS and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study - TIMSS) show that children with at least two years of preschool achieve much higher scores than those who attend no preschool or only one year.
The Abbott Pre-K program in New Jersey, which provides two years of high quality preschool programs to all children in priority communities, found much greater benefits for the children who attended from age three.
Meta-analyses looking at the impact of two years of preschool find that while all children benefit, it provides a major boost to children from low-income households.
This is important because children from poor communities are often significantly behind their peers, even by the age of three.
Access and quality are the priorities
Establishing an entitlement to two years of preschool for all children is the most practical and achievable way of boosting the accessibility and impact of our existing early education and care system.
Setting up minimum and consistent hours of attendance and high-quality learning programs, in the way we have for four-year-old preschool, is critical.
Although many three-year-olds currently attending ECEC will be experiencing a high-quality learning environment, this isn't the case for all children.
Quality levels are lowest in poorest communities, where children are most in need of exceptional quality.
Only 7% of children in the lowest socioeconomic quintile attended programs delivering the highest levels of instructional support.
Quality levels are highest for older children, especially those in four-year-old preschool programs, and much lower for younger children.
Foundations are already in place
The National Quality Framework already provides the foundations of structural quality needed for a three-year-old preschool program - appropriate educator to child ratios, and a second early childhood teacher coming online in many services from 2020.
We have achieved near-universal enrolment in preschool for four year olds in the past five years. We can do the same thing for three year olds.