Evidence for Learning: Earlier starting age

Earlier starting age

A summary of the research evidence on earlier starting age in the Australasian context.

The Early Childhood Education Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of communication and language approaches on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on communication and language approaches. In contrast to the Early Childhood Education Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by early learning professionals and young learners. This information is valuable for early learning centres interested in finding out more about particular examples of communication and language approaches that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

Fraser Mustard Centre generated this evidence summary on behalf of CoLab (a partnership between Telethon Kids Institute and the Minderoo Foundation) in July 2019.

Earlier starting age refers to increasing the amount of time children spend in early childhood education (ECE) by enrolment at a younger age. In the Australasian context, this typically means the provision of preschool (in preschools, also referred to as kindergartens, or in centre-based child care settings) to 3‑year-olds so that children experience up to two years of early education before they start school.

The benefits of ECE for children’s development and later academic outcomes are well established (Goldfeld et al., 2016; Mitchell, 2008; Pascoe, 2017). Encouragingly, preschool enrolment in the Australasian context is high as a result of universal access initiatives implemented in recent decades. In Australia, there is universal entitlement to 15 hours of preschool per week in the year before children commence full time school (i.e. at 4 years of age) (Baxter, 2013). Earlier access is available in some jurisdictions for 3‑year-old children who have a low-income background, live remotely, are of Aboriginal and/​or Torres Strait Islander descent, are known to the child protection system, or have special needs (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2017). In New Zealand, up to 20 hours of preschool per week is subsidised for children aged 3 and 4 years old (OECD, 2016b). Consequently, rates of earlier preschool participation in New Zealand are high, with 87% of 3‑year-olds enrolled nationally, compared to 15% in Australia (OECD, 2016a, 2016b).

Experimental research exploring the impacts of early preschool entry on children’s outcomes in the Australasian context has not been conducted. In Australia, Warren and colleagues (2017) utilised nationally representative data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) to explore the relationship (i.e. non-experimental research) between early preschool entry and children’s development at school entry, measured by the Australian Early Development Census. This suggested the odds of being developmentally vulnerable or at-risk in the language and cognitive domains were 3.3 times higher for children who had not participated in ECE at age 3 or 4 compared to children who started attending preschool at 3‑years old. For children who attended preschool at age 4 only, this was 1.5 times higher. Also utilising LSAC data, Coley and colleagues (2015) explored the long term relationship between centre-based ECE (including day-care, preschool, and other centre-based child care programs) and children’s later development. Although not focused on starting age, increased duration (i.e. length of time attending) in centre-based ECE was associated with greater cognitive skills as well as increased behavioural issues at age 7. These findings reflect international literature and highlight the need to ensure that ECE provision supports children’s social and emotional skills as well as their cognitive abilities.

An earlier preschool starting age has been adopted in a number of countries including the US and UK, with growing evidence of its benefits for children’s outcomes, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds (Burger, 2010). For example, results from the Effective Provision of Preschool Education project in the UK and the Abbott Pre‑K preschool program in the US showed increased academic performance throughout school for children who attended two years of preschool (Fox & Geddes, 2016). However, the applicability of findings from countries with markedly different early childhood (e.g. universal maternal child health) and social support systems, is important to keep in mind when considering the generalisability of international evidence to the Australasian context.

In the Australasian context, early access to preschool is provided to children in New Zealand and to children from disadvantaged settings in some Australian jurisdictions. There is, however, insufficient Australasian evidence to compare the efficacy of these models of universal and targeted earlier provision. The international research indicates positive effects of preschool provision at a younger age, with significant economic rates of return demonstrated for disadvantaged children in particular (Elango, Garcia, Heckman, & Hojman, 2015). This is attributed to the notion that children from home environments that provide lower levels of support for their development can gain the greatest benefit from quality ECE settings. Further research is needed in the Australasian context to determine the efficacy of earlier preschool provision for children from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Baxter, J., & Hand, K. (2013). Access to early childhood education in Australia (Research Report No. 24). Retrieved from Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Burger, K. (2010). How does early childhood care and education affect cognitive development? An international review of the effects of early interventions for children from different social backgrounds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25(2), 140 – 165. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2009.11.001

Coley, R. L., McPherron Lombardi, C., & Sims, J. (2015). Long-Term Implications of Early Education and Care Programs for Australian Children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 284 – 299. doi:10.1037/a0037456

Elango, S., Garcia, J. L., Heckman, J., & Hojman, A. (2015). Early Childhood Education. IZA Discussion Paper No. 9476. Retrieved from http://ftp.iza.org/dp9476.pdf

Fox, S., & Geddes, M. (2016). Preschool – two years are better than one: developing a preschool program for Australian 3 year olds – evidence, policy and implementation in Mitchell Institute Policy Paper No. 03/2016. 2016: Mitchell Institute, Melbourne.

Goldfeld, S., O’Connor, E., O’Connor, M., Sayers, M., Moore, T., Kvalsvig, A., & Brinkman, S. (2016). The role of preschool in promoting children’s healthy development: Evidence from an Australian population cohort. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 35, 40 – 48. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.11.001

Mitchell, L., Wylie, C., & Carr, M. (2008). Outcomes of Early Childhood Education: Literature Review. Ministry of Education, New Zealand.

OECD. (2016a). Starting Strong IV: Early Education and Care, Data Country Note, Australia. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/education/school/ECECDCN-Australia.pdf

OECD. (2016b). Starting Strong IV: Early Education and Care, Data Country Note, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/education/school/ECECDCN-NewZealand.pdf

Pascoe, S., & Brennan, D. (2017). Lifting our game: report of the review to achieve educational excellence in Australian schools through early childhood interventions. Victorian Government.

PwC. (2014). Putting a value on early childhood education and care in Australia. Retrieved from Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision. (2017). Report on Government Services. Canberra.

Warren, D., Daraganova, G., & O’Connor, M. (2017). Preschool and Children’s Readiness for School Retrieved from Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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Preschool; kindergarten; early childhood education/​settings; ECE/ECEC; early starting age; duration; 3‑year-old preschool.