Last week the Mitchell Institute released a report, Two years are better than one, highlighting how earlier engagement in learning drives better educational outcomes for children. While this local evidence and report are compelling, this is not new news. Australia continues to fall behind the rest of the developed world in educational outcomes and participation rates for three-year-old education.
Tomorrow's economy will require new skills that our current education system is not delivering. As a nation, we need to build and invest in an education system that sets young children up for a prosperous adult life. Evidence irrefutably shows two years of quality early learning is critical to building the foundational skills that inform children’s social and emotional development and their capacity to learn in school.
As one of Victoria's largest early years managers, ECMS is privileged to educate thousands of children each week in our 62 kindergartens and 11 early learning centres across Melbourne. Between zero and five years old, children's brains develop at an astounding rate, with 90 per cent of brain development occurring before age five. Each of those years in a young child’s life is incredibly significant.
In three-year-old kindergarten and equivalent programs offered in early learning and care centres (childcare), educators focus on the foundational domains of social and emotional development through intentional play-based learning that reflects each children’s developmental stages. It is not about teaching children to read and write.
Three-year-old children have insatiable appetites for learning. Their brains are wired and ready to explore and research their world. Early learning programs for three-year-olds support children’s capacity to separate from their families, to make friends and socialise, and to make sense of their community and surroundings. They start learning who they are in a wider world and they’re free to do so in an environment that is safe, child-focused and family-centred.
Our first-hand experience tells us that one year of early learning is not enough. After opening a kindergarten for 250 four-year-old children on a school site in Melbourne’s outer west in 2014, we quickly learned that too many children were starting school with undiagnosed developmental vulnerabilities. In partnership with the primary school teachers, we identified a need to do more to engage those children and families in education earlier. Many children in this growth area are now accessing two years of kindergarten before school. Not only are all children benefiting from more access to education, but we are also able to intervene earlier and provide additional support to children who need extra help to prepare for their primary school education.
Two-thirds of Victorian families already recognise the value of two years of early learning and are paying out of their own pockets to access short sessions of three-year-old education programs. One million Australian families are accessing quality early learning and care services for zero to five-year-olds every day. The demand is clearly there. But what happens if you can’t afford it?
The children who may fall through the cracks because they’re in a disadvantaged or vulnerable position – or worse, at harm’s risk – are the ones who are set to gain the most from quality early learning. Making three-year-old education an entitlement for all children - just like four-year-old kindergarten and school currently is – will provide those children with the opportunity to redefine their future. Our early learning services offer a safe place for early identification and support where it's needed before it is too late. Once a vulnerable or abused child reaches five, his or her chances in life are predetermined. Unfortunately, any work from this point on becomes remedial – a repair, rather than a strong foundation. Early education, done well, can transform a child’s life.
We already have all the ingredients we need to deliver on two years of early education for all children. We have excellent facilities, passionate and professional educators, and national quality standards. We have educational frameworks and evidence to prove they work. There's a consensus across government, service providers, businesses, and parents that two years of early learning is what's needed. So, what's stopping us?
It's time to get on with realising the potential of young Australian children with a sustainable early learning system that provides at least two guaranteed years of early education for every child and family. The longer we wait, the more three-year-olds miss out.
As a leading Victorian provider of early learning and care, ECMS is committed to advocating to governments for more investment in accessible, inclusive and quality early learning and care for all Victorian children and families.