1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2002  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2002   
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Contents >> Education and Training >> Early years education in Australia


This article was contributed by Marilyn Fleer PhD, MEd (Hons), MA, BEd, University of Canberra, and Ginie Udy B.Ed, MA (Hons), Director of Community Services, YWCA of Canberra.


The early years of a child's education in Australia are referred to in different ways, and occur in a range of settings under the responsibility of many government and non-government agencies. This article gives a brief account of the diversity in early years education across Australia. In particular it features issues surrounding care and education such as school starting ages; naming of services; qualifications of staff; participation of children in early years education; outcomes of early years education; financial support; and research issues surrounding this level of education in Australia.

Definition of early years education

It is generally recognised in Australia, and internationally, that children from birth to eight years display social, emotional and intellectual characteristics which are distinct from those shown in other periods of their lives. On that basis, there is wide acceptance of the categorisation of children in this age band into a distinct educational category or sector, providing specialist teachers and unique educational resources.

Early years education can be provided by schools, preschools or kindergartens, long day care or occasional care centres, multi-functional Aboriginal services, multi-purpose neighbourhood centres, rural and remote mobile services, in family day care homes, by parents or relatives in the child’s own home and to a lesser extent at playgroups or playschools.

What unites these services under the banner of 'early years education' is the extent to which they meet stated or assumed criteria of ‘education’. These criteria may include: involvement by a teacher who has been formally trained; the presence of a formal curriculum or program of learning in place; children taking part in activities that are recognised as ‘learning’; learning that is monitored, assessed and reported on; and new ideas and skills that develop in a logical sequence as a result of teaching.

There is an increasing literature which embraces the early years concept, uses the term ‘early years education’ and encourages greater dialogue among researchers, practitioners and policy makers on these issues (Cullen, 2000). This article uses the term 'early years education' to refer to the education of children from birth to eight years regardless of the educational setting in which it occurs.

Diversity of early years education

While all State and Territory departments of education have taken some interest in the provision of early years education, the form this takes varies widely. In some parts of Australia, programs providing one or two years before Year 1are funded and provided solely by the relevant departments of education and charge a nominal fee. In other States such as NSW, Victoria and Western Australia, there is a sharing of provision with the community sector, and fees can vary greatly.

The variety of programs for children before they start formal schooling is matched by the variability in entry to school and preschool programs across Australia (see table 10.5 below). The most striking difference is in the school starting age, which varies across States and Territories. Also, program names are inconsistent. For instance, there are five different names for pre-year 1 programs. These programs are all under the authority of departments of education, with most located in the school grounds, and with many, but not all, operating on a full-time (e.g. school time) or sessional basis (e.g. three extended mornings per week).

10.5 EARLY YEARS EDUCATION, Government School and Preschool Entry Ages by State/Territory

State/TerritoryProgram nameEntry age

Two years before year 1

NSWPreschool4 by 31 July in year of entry
Vic.Preschool4 by 30 April in year of entry
QldKindergarten4 by 31 Dec in year of entry
SAKindergartenContinuous entry after turning 4
WAKindergarten4 in year of entry (by 30 June from 2001)
Tas.Kindergarten4 by 1 Jan in year of entry
NTPreschoolContinuous entry after 4th birthday
ACTPreschool4 by 30 April in year of entry

One year before year 1

NSWKindergarten5 by 31 July in year of entry
Vic. Preparatory5 by 30 April in year of entry
Qld Pre-school5 by 31 Dec in year of entry
SA ReceptionContinuous entry after turning 5
WAPre-primary5 by year of entry (by 30 June from 2002)
Tas.Preparatory5 by 1 January in year of entry
NTTransition5 by 30 June in year of entry. Continuous intake after 5th birthday in Term 1 and 2. Final intake beginning of Term 3
ACTKindergarten5 by 30 April in year of entry

Year 1

NSW-6 by 31 July in year of entry
Vic.-6 by 30 April in year of entry
Qld-l6 by 31 Dec in year of entry
SA-Single entry to Year 1 is in Jan after spending between 2 and 5 terms in Reception depending upon initial term of entry
WA-6 by 31 Dec in year of entry (by 30 June from 2003)
Tas.-6 by 1 January in year of entry
NT-Continuous entry to Year 1, sometimes after a minimum of 2 terms in transition
ACT-6 by 30 April in year of entry

Source: Drawn from OECD 2000 and COAG Child Care Working Group 1995.

Children’s services: care, education or both?

Historically, services for children in their earliest years were seen as providing primarily care or education. This split came as early as 1905 in Australia when Kindergarten Unions, which brought education to poor inner city children, were criticised by the later-formed Day Nursery movement, for ignoring the needs of working mothers and not allowing children under the age of three years to be enrolled (Brennan 1998).

These tensions and differences of approach and philosophy are reflected in the development of the two main aims for early childhood services: providing early education, primarily for the benefit of the child; and providing a safe place for children to be while their parents are at work, primarily for the benefit of parents and employers. As a reflection of these dual aims, the Commonwealth Government provides a Child Care Benefit to families using child care facilities, mainly to assist working parents, but at the same time it provides an accreditation system for child care centres which promotes the provision of both quality care and education for children.

Also, because early years education has these dual aims, a large range of services has evolved and governments have taken some interest in, or ownership of, early childhood services. State and Territory education departments both fund and provide those services which are more clearly ‘educational’, including preschools.

Departments of community services in all States and the Territories have developed regulations and licensing requirements for child care centres and family day care schemes, and provide some funding to occasional care centres, vacation care and any special State-based services. Most State and Territory Governments also provide funding to assist children with special needs to access services.

While the Commonwealth has a major role in funding child care services, various other agencies are responsible for actually providing these services. The Commonwealth Government provides funding to assist long day care centres to be more inclusive of children from a range of backgrounds, under its Supplementary Services Program. It also funds long day care centres, both community based and private, through the provision of a Child Care Benefit to parents that is means tested and provided on a sliding scale. Commonwealth operational subsidies were withdrawn from community based long day care centres in 1996, but maintained for occasional care centres. Table 10.6 outlines the range of sponsorship of Commonwealth-funded children’s services programs in 1997.

10.6 SPONSORSHIP OF CHILDREN'S SERVICES, By Sponsoring Body and Service Type - 1997

not for profit
day care(b)
Outside school
hours care(c)
other care(d)
Type of sponsorship

Local government
Privately owned
State/Territory Government

Total agencies

(a) Private-for-profit and employer-sponsored and other non-profit long day care centres.
(b) Family day care coordination units.
(c) For outside school hours care services, the 'sponsor' is counted for each service type rather than each agency. Note that one agency may provide more than one service type (before school care, after school care, vacation care).
(d) Includes occasional care centres and neighbourhood model services, multifunctional Aboriginal services (MACS) and other multifunctional services.
(e) At this time there were a small number of private-for-profit outside school hours care pilot programs (AIHW 1997).

Source: Australia's Welfare 1999, Services and Assistance.

Participation of children in early years education

In more recent years, professionals, parents and policy makers have realised that the ideal situation is one in which children’s needs for quality early years education and parents’ needs for child care while they are at work are met in the same service. To this end, in some parts of Australia such services are now provided.

In 1999, 40% of the 1.3 million children aged 4 years and under in Australia used formal services of some kind, compared with 28% in 1990 (ABS 2000). The majority of children in both 1990 and 1999 were attending preschools or long day care centres, with the greatest increase in use over this time occurring in long day centres.

Graph 10.7 shows the number of children participating in the different service types for this age group.

Qualifications of staff

While staff in Australian schools who are working with children aged 5 years and over must have university qualifications, most jurisdictions allow staff with a wide range of qualifications to be employed in services for younger children. ‘Qualified’ children's services staff under most State/Territory regulations could include a person with a Child Care Certificate, a Diploma of Children's Services or Child Care, a Registered Mothercraft Nurse, a 3 or 4 year degree in early childhood education, or other qualification deemed appropriate by the relevant accrediting agency or individual (OECD 2000).

Of some 60,000 staff employed in Commonwealth-funded long day care centres in Australia, almost half (46%) held no formal qualification, 38% held a Child Care Certificate or Diploma of Child Care, 12% held teaching qualifications, 4% held nursing qualifications and 7% held other relevant qualifications.

Similar proportions of staff in private and community-based centres had no formal qualifications (47% and 46%). In family day care schemes, 30% of coordination unit staff and 79% of caregivers had no formal qualifications.

Outcomes of early years education

Policy development in early years education has been strongly influenced by a worldwide interest in neuroscience. Since the mid 1990s, a variety of journal papers, books, education reports and articles in the popular press have given evidence of this so-called 'brain-based' research supporting the impact of the early years of learning on brain development and later academic achievement (Lindsey 1998).

Other research also suggests that early years education makes a difference to children’s cognitive attainment and subsequent social outcomes (Fleer 2000). Studies have supported the view that spending money on early years education is a better investment than paying for remediation programs later in life for problems rooted in poor early development (McCain and Mustard 1999).

In broad terms, money directed towards the period birth to 8 years has been shown to be a cost effective method of supporting children and young people to achieve their potential. Governments in the United Kingdom and New Zealand have recognised the potential of investing in early childhood education, and have undertaken their own longitudinal research into the outcomes of early years education for children. In Australia the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services has commissioned a longitudinal study of children which may also identify outcomes for children and families in this area, although currently Australia must rely on overseas research to support policy and practice.

Quality services: defining the determinants and ensuring quality

If the outcomes of early years education are to be realised, then the quality of the programs provided is essential. Determinants of quality early childhood education have been well documented and include: environmental factors such as staff to child ratios, group sizes and the appropriateness of the program; working conditions provided for staff and staff turnover; and formal early childhood education training of staff (Whitebook, Howes and Phillips 1989).

The two most important aspects of quality services are the nature of the program provided and the nature of the interactions that occur between staff and children. The program has to be based on the developmental needs and interests of children and be culturally sensitive, with interactions which are warm, responsive and reciprocal.

Research has shown that staff with specialisation in early years education are more likely to provide programs with the above characteristics (Fleer 2000). There is further evidence that the salary paid (and therefore assumed increase in qualifications and experience of staff) is a significant contributor to quality outcomes for children (Farquhar 1999). In New Zealand there is also general agreement that further education results in higher quality interactional patterns and the implementation of higher quality programs for young children (Smith et al. 2000).


Australia’s involvement in the thematic review of early childhood education and care policy (OECD 2000) and other research on children's services provision in Australia (COAG 1995) marks the depth of interest in early childhood education held in Australia. However, a systematic framework is still needed, exploring both the range of services for children and families, and the level of staffing required to provide quality services. The need for nationally consistent data to support policy requirements in the areas of care and education has also been acknowledged (AIHW 1999). Such a framework could provide the impetus for further investment in the foundation for all later learning in life: early years education.


Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000, Child Care, Australia, June 1999 (4402.0), ABS, Canberra.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 1999, Australia’s Welfare: services and assistance, AIHW, Canberra.

COAG Child Care Working Group 1995, A National Framework for Children's Services: Discussion paper, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Cullen, J. 2000, "The Early Years: conceptual issues and future challenge", New Zealand Research in Early Childhood Education, 3, pp. 3-11.

Department of Family and Community Services 2000, 1999 Census of Child Care Services: Summary Booklet, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Fleer, M. 2000, An early childhood research agenda: voices from the field, Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, McMillan Printing Group, Canberra.

Brennan, D. 1998, The Politics of Australian Child Care: Philanthrophy to feminism and beyond, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Farquhar, S. 1999, "The trouble with ‘quality’", The First Years: New Zealand Journal of Infant and Toddler Education, 1, (1), pp. 10-14.

Lindsay, G. 1998, "Brain research and implications for early childhood education", Childhood Education, Winter, 75 (2), pp. 97-104.

McCain, M., and Mustard, J. F. 1999, Early Years Study: Reversing the real brain drain, final report to Government of Ontario, Toronto, Canada (at http://www.childsec.gov.on.ca).

OECD 2000, Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care Policy: Australian Background Report, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Smith, A. B., Grima, G., Gaffney, M., Powell, K., Massee, L., and Barnett, S. 2000, Strategic Research Initiatives: Literature review, Early Childhood Education Report to the Ministry of Education, New Zealand.

Whitebook, M., Howes, C. and Phillips, D. 1989, Who cares? Child care teachers and the quality of care in America, final report of the National Child Care Study.