9. Early childhood education

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Why is early childhood education important?

Early childhood is a critical period for child neurological and behavioural development. Early childhood education has been found to improve school readiness, communication and behaviour (Silburn et al. 2011), particularly in those from disadvantaged backgrounds (AIHW 2012). Those who attended early childhood education are found to have higher academic outcomes later in life, including higher vocabulary and cognitive scores (Harrison et al. 2009).

In Australia, early childhood education services are provided by government and non-government organisations, through kindergartens, preschools and early learning centres (ABS 2014a).

Early childhood education prepares a child for school and provides a solid foundation for learning and achieving at school and beyond. Evidence shows that participation in preschool has a significant positive impact on vocabulary for Indigenous students in the following two years (Arcos Holzinger & Biddle 2015). Three to five years after preschool enrolment, positive impacts included developmental outcomes as well as reading and maths achievements. Importantly, evidence shows 15-year-old students who had attended at least a year of preschool outperformed students who had not, even for socioeconomic background (OECD 2014).

In recent years, the Australian Government and state and territory governments have committed to increase participation in high-quality early childhood education and care. A particular focus has been on increasing participation rates of Indigenous children and children from a disadvantaged background. As part of this commitment, the Australian Government undertook a review of child care and early childhood learning between 2014 and 2015. The final report from the review was released in February 2015 (Productivity Commission 2014).

Does enrolment vary across population groups?

In 2017, over 292,000 children aged 4 or 5 years were enrolled in an early childhood education program in the year before starting primary school. There were almost 154,000 boys and 139,000 girls enrolled in early childhood education programs, equating to roughly 15,000 more boys than girls. There were 15,500 Indigenous children enrolled in early childhood education programs.

Has there been a change over time?

The presentation of the proportion of children enrolled in an early childhood education program in the year before starting primary school for 2016 and 2017 represents a break in series. As such, comparisons with previous years are not made. There is not yet enough data for a time series comparison of enrolment rates.

The number of children attending an early childhood education program increased by approximately 16,400 children from 2013 to 2014 (around 281,000 and 297,400, respectively). This number further increased by approximately 14,600 to just over 312,000 in 2015.

The number of Indigenous children attending an early childhood education program remained relatively steady between 2013 and 2014 (at around 12,250), but increased to over 14,000 in 2015. The number of children living in the lowest socioeconomic areas attending such a program increased by about 2,000 between 2013 and 2014, with an even larger increase of over 3,000 between 2014 and 2015 to 54,680. The number of 4 and 5 year olds attending an early childhood education program in Remote areas, was relatively stable at around 4,400 over the three years, with the same observed stability in Very remote areas, at around 2,500. Changes between 2014 and 2015 are due in part to an expanded service and child identification and imputation strategy introduced for the 2015 collection of data from long day care centres.


For 2012 to 2015 data, numbers of children attending early childhood education are presented for this indicator rather than proportions due to difficulties with using different sources for numerator and denominator data. For 2016 and 2017 data, proportions of children enrolled in early childhood education are reported. The inclusion of enrolment data aligns the indicator with the reporting practices of other bodies that publish data on preschool participation, such as the Productivity Commission‘s Report on Government Services, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Preschool Education publication.

In order to have a nationally comparable preschool participation rate for children in the year before full-time schooling begins (the ‘universal access’ target cohort), proportions have previously calculated using the total population of 4 year olds as an approximate measure for the ‘year before school’ target cohort as the denominator.  However, as there are a small number of children aged 5 who attend an early education program in the year before beginning primary school, the numerator includes children aged 4 and 5 which results in some attendance rates of greater than 100%.

In addition, some children attend early childhood education programs in a different geographical area to which they reside (such as state/territory, remoteness area, socioeconomic status area). There are also issues affecting the availability and quality of ABS Indigenous population data at fine levels of disaggregation by jurisdiction (ABS2014b).


  • Arcos Holzinger L & Biddle N 2015. The relationship between early childhood education and care and the outcomes of Indigenous children: evidence from the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.
  • AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare): Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, Metcalfe E, Goldfeld S, Harrison J & Moore T 2012. Early learning programs that promote children's developmental and educational outcomes. Resource sheet no. 15. Cat. no. IHW 76. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2014a. Childhood Education and Care, June 2014. ABS cat. no. 4402.0. Canberra: ABS.
  • ABS 2014b Estimates and Projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2001 to 2026. ABS cat. no. 3238.0. Canberra: ABS.
  • Harrison L, Ungerer G, Smith S, Zubrick S, Wise S et al. 2009. Child care and early education in Australia: the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Canberra: Dept. of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
  • OECD 2014. PISA 2012 Results: What 15 year-olds know and can do. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
  • Productivity Commission 2014. Childcare and Early Childhood Learning: Overview (PDF), Inquiry Report No. 73, Canberra. Viewed 5 May 2015.
  • Silburn S, Nutton G, Arney F & Moss B 2011. The First 5 Years: Starting Early. Topical paper commissioned for the public consultations on the Northern Territory Early Childhood Plan. Darwin: Northern Territory Government.