“Earlier starting age” refers to increasing the time a child spends in early years education by beginning at a younger age.
For a summary of the evidence related to increasing the number of hours spent in early years education at a given time, see “Extra hours”.
In Australia, an earlier starting age would typically mean being enrolled in a preschool program (or equivalent) from the age of three and experiencing up to two years of early years education before starting school.
Beginning early years education one year earlier than usual appears to have a moderate positive impact (+ three months) on learning outcomes.
One of the weaknesses of the evidence base is that most of the studies examine comparisons between starting early years education at four rather than five. While impacts appear consistent, there is much less evidence around the impact of earlier starting ages (e.g. three-year-olds).
An important consideration around earlier starting age is cost. Where costs present a barrier to families experiencing disadvantage, achievement gaps may grow.
An earlier starting age will have an impact on provision. Careful consideration should be given to provide appropriate support for all age ranges across settings.
Positive effects have been detected for early reading outcomes in the first year of primary school as well as early language and number skills. There is some evidence that positive effects of an earlier starting age can be sustained into primary and secondary school, but evidence is much weaker and heavily influenced by the quality of provision during primary school.
The average impact of an earlier starting age is about an additional three months’ progress over the course of a year.
Evidence about the longer-term impact of an earlier starting age varies. In some studies, positive effects are detectable into primary school and even into secondary school. However, in several US studies benefits do not usually appear to be sustained for more than a year or two. It appears likely that the quality of provision is the key determinant of sustained improvement, but more evidence is needed in this area to identify which practices are most helpful for different ages.
The existing evidence base relates primarily to attendance at a formal early childhood education setting for an additional year (such as centre-based daycare and preschool or equivalent).
The school starting age is different in different countries, which can make it hard to assess the applicability of evidence from different countries to Australia.
In the Australasian context, experimental research exploring the impacts of early preschool entry on children’s outcomes has not been conducted. In Australia, nationally representative data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) has been utilised 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 early childhood education at age three or four compared to children who started attending preschool at three years old. For children who attended preschool at age four only, this was 1.5 times higher.
Similar effects are found for studies involving three-year-olds as those with four- and five-year-olds, but there are fewer studies.
Similar effects are found for early literacy and mathematics outcomes (+ three months).
While the majority of studies have been undertaken in the USA, there is evidence on an earlier starting age from the UK, South America, Australia and Asia.
There are some indications that the impact of additional early childhood education provision can be particularly positive for children from families experiencing disadvantage. To increase the likelihood of an earlier starting age benefitting children experiencing disadvantage, settings should consider how to secure engagement and attendance among those children and families.
Ensuring that cost does not present a barrier to families accessing early childhood education may be an important factor in closing the achievement gap. In Australia, four-year-olds are entitled to attend preschool for at least 15 hours each week, with some states also offering three-year-old programs so that children experience up to two years of early childhood education before they start school. In some jurisdictions, these base hours are free or heavily subsidised, however, this varies across Australian states and territories.
While there is a positive impact to an earlier starting age, there are some key considerations around implementation to maximise the effectiveness of the approach:
- Reducing the starting age may increase the age range among early years settings; it is crucial that staff are prepared for appropriate provision across the range.
- In particular, it will be important to assess the effectiveness of provision for younger children.
- Carefully selected professional development can help staff to support younger children’s development and learning.
Overall, the costs are estimated as very high. In Australia, preschool for the year before children begin school (usually four-year-olds) is delivered by state and territory governments but partly funded by the Australian Government. As such, there is variation between each jurisdiction.
The Australian Government provides $1,340 per child to states and territories who must direct this contribution to benefit children in the setting in which they attend preschool. Additional funding and subsidies are provided by state and territory governments for free or low-cost preschool.
An additional year of preschool is estimated to attract funding of at least $3,300 per child per year. This estimate doesn’t account for additional costs that providers may incur for delivering an additional year of preschool. These additional costs are usually passed on to families in the form of fees. In 2021, Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicated that 74% of children enrolled in preschool programs had families who paid $4 or less out of pocket per hour (or approximately $2,400 a year or less).
The security of the evidence around an earlier starting age is rated as very low. 41 studies met the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. This relatively low number of studies reduces our confidence in the findings. The topic lost three padlocks for this reason.
The topic lost an additional padlock because a large percentage of the studies are not randomised controlled trials. While other study designs still give important information about effectiveness of approaches, there is a risk that results are influenced by unknown factors that are not part of the intervention.
One of the threats to the security of the evidence is the different levels of evidence for different age groups. In particular, there are very few studies on the benefits of starting early education at two rather than three or four.
Low security of evidence is not the same as evidence of no impact. Many approaches may have low evidence, not because they are ineffective but because high quality research has not yet taken place.
As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.