The majority of formal early childhood education programs are currently focused on preschool education, but a growing amount of effort and resources is being directed towards programs that target children aged from 6 months to 3-4 years. A number of studies at the domestic and international level have noted the lower educational assets of older children who did not participate in some formal early childhood program. Coupled with other research that indicates that all children are at the peak of their learning potential from ages 1-3, this has prompted various educational providers to introduce formal programs to maximise the uptake of basic skills in their 1-3 year-old age cohorts. Such programs are generally available in child care or family day care centres. Currently, statistical information on such schemes is either irregular or not comparable.
Preschool generally refers to education that is provided for children in the year prior to the first year of full-time primary school. It is largely sessional and operates only during school terms for children three years of age to school starting age. Preschools may be operated by government, community organisations or the private sector. Preschool programs may also be provided in long-day child care centres.
Data about preschool participation are obtained from the triennial Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Child Care Survey. Prior to the 2002 survey there was some undercounting of the number of children attending preschool in this survey. Reasons for this included differences in terminology and starting ages of preschool between states and territories. Some changes in the 2002 survey resulted in improved estimates of preschool attendance.
Data on Indigenous preschool students are from the National Indigenous Preschool Census (NIPC) which is conducted annually by the Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training. The scope of the NIPC is 3-5 year olds attending preschools which have been identified as registered providers and have a preschool educational program. The purpose of the NIPC is to allocate Australian Government funding to preschools for Indigenous students.
The two data sources (ABS Child Care Survey and NIPC) are not directly comparable due to differences in scope and collection methodology. The most obvious difference is in the scope, where the Child Care Survey includes preschool programs in child care centres, while the NIPC is restricted to enrolments at registered preschools.
There is no national policy on the provision of preschool education, the responsibility for this resting with individual states and territories. The age at which children may attend preschool varies, reflecting the different school commencement ages in each jurisdiction.
In 2002, 239,100 children were attending preschool, with 4 year olds (148,000) representing 62% of the total. The four year olds attending preschool amounted to almost 59% of all four year olds. At the same time only 17% of 5 year olds attended preschool (reflecting the entry of the majority of five year olds into primary school).
Table 10.1 shows that the proportion of four year olds attending preschool has fluctuated somewhat between 1993 and 2002, while the proportion attending long-day child care centres has increased steadily (from 12% in 1993 to 25% in 2002).
Indigenous preschool students
In 2003, 9,051 Indigenous children were enrolled in government and non-government preschools, representing 4.3% of total preschool enrolments, as counted by the NIPC. Of these enrolments 30% were in New South Wales. Table 10.2 contains data for Indigenous preschool enrolments from 2001 to 2003. Between 2002 and 2003, the number of Indigenous children enrolled in preschools increased across all states and territories except Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.
10.1 PARTICIPATION OF FOUR YEAR OLDS
|Utilised long-day care(a)|
|All four year olds|
|(a) Some children will be included in both preschool and long-day care estimates.|
Source: Child Care, Australia (4402.0).
10.2 INDIGENOUS PRESCHOOL ENROLMENTS
|New South Wales|
|Australian Capital Territory|
|Total Indigenous enrolments|
|Total non-Indigenous enrolments|
|Source: Department of Education, Science and Training, 'National Indigenous Preschool Census'.|