Early childhood education and care programs assist parents with their caring responsibilities. These programs can support the economic and social participation of parents, while helping to ease the transition to full-time school for children (Warren et al. 2016).

In Australia, early childhood education and care services may be provided by government and non-government organisations. They may be formal or informal.

Formal and informal care

Childcare can be categorised as formal or informal.

Formal care: The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines formal childcare as regulated care away from the child’s home, including:

  • outside school hours care
  • centre-based day care
  • family day care (ABS 2017).

Preschool was once considered a type of formal care, however since 2005 the definition of formal care has excluded preschool. Preschool data is collected separately from child care data and is discussed later on this page.

Informal care: The ABS defines informal care as non-regulated care, paid or unpaid. Informal care may be provided by:

  • grandparents
  • other relatives (including siblings and a parent living elsewhere)
  • other people (including friends, babysitters and nannies)
  • other child minding services (for example a crèche) (ABS 2017).  

Impact of COVID-19

In 2020, in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, many Australian families withdrew their children from Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services. This may have been prompted by health concerns or because care was being provided in the home due to parents or carers being stood down, losing employment or working from home (Parliament of Australia 2020). This resulted in a significant decline in enrolments and impacted the ability of services to remain viable and open.

At the beginning of April 2020, Early Childhood Australia estimated that 650 ECEC services had already closed (Parliament of Australia 2020). Overall, ECEC attendance had decreased between 30 and 40 per cent with services finding it difficult to remain open and retain staff. Outside School Hours Care services experienced the largest decline in attendance followed by Centre-based Day Care services (DESE 2020).  

A number of relief packages aimed at keeping ECEC services open during the COVID-19 pandemic were in place throughout most of 2020 (DESE 2020). In 2021, the Australian Government have continued to provide support to ECEC services in COVID-19 affected areas by waiving gap fees and increasing the number of allowable absences to ensure families can maintain their enrolment and services continue receiving the Child Care Subsidy (DESE 2021b).

Child Care Subsidy approved child care

The Australian Government provides a Child Care Subsidy to support children and families attending early childhood education and care services. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government allocated almost $3 billion to keep childcare open and available for essential workers and families with vulnerable children (DESE 2021a).

In the December quarter 2020, there were 1,311,630 children who attended a Child Care Subsidy approved child care centre. Of these, 1,266,800 children were eligible to receive a Child Care Subsidy. The attendance rates are similar to the December 2019 quarter, which shows that children are returning to child care and usage is back to pre-COVID levels (DESE 2021a). New COVID-19 outbreaks occurring in 2021 may have similar impacts to attendance rates that were seen in 2020.

How many children are in childcare?

The ABS’ Childhood Education and Care Survey (CEaCS) (ABS 2018) collects information on childcare arrangements, preschool attendance and other early childhood education and learning activities. The most recent data available are from the 2017 CEaCS survey.

In 2017, formal or informal early childhood education and care was a usual form of care for 49% (or 2.0 million) of children aged 0–12 (up from 48% in 2014) (ABS 2018). Patterns of formal and informal care use varied by age:

  • Children less than one year of age were more likely to attend informal types of care (23%) than formal types (12%). The same was true of children aged 6–8 (informal 33%, formal 22%) and 9–12 (informal 31%, formal 9.6%).
  • Children aged 2, 3, and 4 years were more likely to attend formal types of care (58%, 58%, and 45% respectively) than informal types (35%, 33%, and 30% respectively) (Figure 1).
  • The highest level of overall care attendance was among 2- and 3-year-olds (ABS 2018).


This horizontal bar chart shows the use of formal and informal care types for children aged 0–12 years. Informal care was more likely to be attended than formal care for children aged under 1 year (formal: 12.4%, informal: 22.9%), 5 years (formal: 28.0%, informal: 30.9%), 6–8 years (formal: 22.1%, informal: 32.7%), and 9–12 years (formal: 9.6%, informal: 31.3%). Formal care was more likely to be attended than informal care for children aged 1 year (formal: 41.9%, informal: 37.4%), 2 years (formal: 58.3%, informal: 34.6%), 3 years (formal: 58.1%, informal: 33.1%), and 4 years (formal: 44.6%, informal: 29.8%).


Most children have some exposure to formal, non-parental care and/or early learning before starting school (ABS 2018).

Between 1999 and 2017:

  • The proportion of children aged 0–11 attending formal care increased from 17% to 28% and the proportion in informal care decreased from 37% to 29% (Figure 2).
  • Long day care continues to be the most attended type of formal care for children aged 0–4. The proportion of this cohort attending long day care increased from 18% in 1999 to 35% in 2017 (ABS 2018).
  • For children aged 5–11, the increase in formal care was driven by an increase in children using before and after school care, up from 8% in 1999 to 15% in 2017 (ABS 2018).


This line chart shows the proportion of children aged 0–11 years who used formal and informal care between 1999 and 2017. For 0–4 year olds formal care increased (1999: 27.0%, 2017: 42.0%), while informal care decreased (1999: 43.0%, 2017: 29.0%). For 5–11 year olds, formal care increased (1999: 10.0%, 2017: 18.0%), while informal care fluctuated with an overall decrease (1999: 33.0%, 2017: 28.0%). For 0–11 year olds, formal care increased (1999: 17.0%, 2017: 28.0%), while informal care decreased (1999: 37.0%, 2017: 29.0%).

Family characteristics and care type

According to the CEaCS (ABS 2018), of children aged 0–12 in 2017:

  • Children from couple families were more likely to attend formal care (28%) than children from one-parent families (24%), and less likely to attend informal care (29% and 45%, respectively). Children from one-parent families were more likely to attend a combination of formal and informal care types (12%) than children from couple families (9%).
  • 60% of children from couple families where both parents were employed usually attended care. Among them, 38% used informal care and 35% used formal care.
  • 75% of children from one-parent families where the parent was employed usually attended care. Of these, 61% were in informal care, while 34% were in formal care.
  • Grandparents were the most common source of childcare for couple families (22%). For one-parent families, grandparents and the non-resident parent were an equal source of childcare (both 20%).
  • 52% of children from couple families and 43% from one-parent families did not usually attend care (ABS 2018).

Preschool participation

Preschool programs aim to meet the learning needs of young children through play-based activities (DET 2018). These programs are generally provided by preschools or centre-based day care services (formerly long day care) in the years before children enter full-time school (Warren et al. 2016). Preschool participation is not compulsory and age entry requirements vary across states and territories (ABS 2019c). Preschool subsidies are available in all states and territories (DESE 2021c).

Preschool and centre-based day care

A preschool program can be offered by a preschool or a centre-based day care service.

According to the ABS (2014), preschools deliver a structured educational program to children before they start school. The preschool program can be delivered from a stand-alone facility or the preschool may be integrated or co-located within a school. Preschools can be operated by government or non-government entities.

Centre-based day care services provide childcare to children aged 0–5. Services may include delivery of a preschool program by a qualified teacher. Like preschools, centre-based day care can be offered from a stand-alone facility or be co-located within a school. Centre-based day care can also be operated by for-profit and not-for-profit organisations.

Since 2008, the Australian Government has provided funding to assist states and territories to increase preschool participation through the National Partnership Agreements on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education (Warren et al. 2016). The initiative aims to provide universal access to quality preschool programs for all children in the year before full-time school for 600 hours per year.

In 2020, around 334,800, children aged 4–5 were enrolled in a preschool program, a decrease of 0.3% since 2019 (ABS 2021b). More children were enrolled in a preschool program through a centre based day care service (50%) than a preschool (40%) (ABS 2021a).

Of children aged 4–5 and enrolled in a preschool program:

  • About 267,800 were aged 4 and 67,000 aged 5, representing 81% of all children aged 4 and 17% of all children aged 5.
  • More than 19,800 were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. This number is around 1% higher than in 2019 (ABS 2021b and ABS 2020).
  • Those who lived in the highest socioeconomic areas were more likely to be enrolled in a preschool program (95% and 22%, respectively) than those from the lowest socioeconomic areas (76% and 17%, respectively) (ABS 2021a) (Figure 3).
  • Most children (95%) were enrolled for 15 hours per week or more.
  • About one-third (32%) were enrolled in a program were no fee was paid, which is up 45% compared with 2019 due to fee reduction programs in place due to COVID-19. 44% paid  between $1 and $4 per hour; around 1 in 4 (24%) in paid $5 or more (ABS 2021b).


This horizontal bar chart shows the proportion of 4- and 5-year-olds enrolled in a preschool program by demographic factors in 2020. Proportions by sex: males 4 years 78.7%, 5 years 17.4%; females 4 years 88.1%, 5 years 24.5%. Proportions by Indigenous status: Indigenous 4 years 86.3%, 5 years 19.6%; non-Indigenous 4 years 84.9%, 5 years 21.4%. Proportions by remoteness area: Major cities: 4 years 86.7%, 5 years 20.3%; Inner regional 4 years 82.5%, 5 years 28.0%; Outer regional 4 years 79.0%, 5 years 18.6%; Remote 4 years: 80.5%, 5 years 10.9%; Very remote 4 years 77.6%, 5 years 8.8%. Proportions by socioeconomic area: Lowest 4 years 76.0%, 5 years 17.4%; Highest 4 years 95.4%, 5 years 22.4%.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on early childhood education and care, see:


ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2014. Nature of preschool program delivery by state and territory. Viewed 19 February 2019.

ABS 2017. Childhood Education and Care Survey. Viewed 18 February 2019.

ABS 2018. Childhood education and care, Australia, June 2017. ABS cat. no. 4402.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019. Preschool education: explanatory notes. Viewed 19 February 2019.  

ABS 2020. Preschool education, Australia, 2019. ABS cat. no: 4240.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2021a. Microdata: Preschool education, Australia, 2020. ABS cat. no: 4240.0.55.003. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2021b. Preschool education, Australia, 2020. ABS cat. no: 4240.0. Canberra: ABS.

DESE (Department of Education, skills and Employment) 2020. Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package Four Week Review. Canberra: DESE.

DESE 2021a. Child Care in Australia report December quarter 2020 - Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Australian Government. Canberra: DESE.

DESE 2021b. COVID-19 information for the early childhood education and care sector. Viewed 10 August 2021.

DESE 2021c. Preschool. Viewed 27 August 2021.

DET (Department of Education and Training) 2018. National report: National partnership agreement on universal access to early childhood education—2016 and 17. Canberra: DET.

Parliament of Australia 2020. Coronavirus response-Free child care – Parliament of Australia (aph.gov.au). Canberra: Parliament of Australia.

Warren D, O’Connor M, Smart D & Edwards B 2016. A critical review of the early childhood literature. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.