This refers to increasing the amount of early childhood education that a child receives at a given age. Most commonly, extra hours are provided by switching from half-day to full-day provision.
For a summary of the evidence related to starting early childhood education at a younger age, you can read the entry on an earlier starting age.
Increasing the amount of early childhood education that a child receives has a positive effect on their learning with an average impact of an additional four months’ progress. However, the evidence has very low security.
Despite the positive impact, increasing the hours of provision has a high cost per child. It may be more cost-effective to focus on improving the quality of provision before considering increasing the amount within each day.
Learning gains from increasing hours may not sustain into primary school unless the provision is of high quality, with well-trained and well-qualified staff.
Recruiting and retaining staff is another key factor for early learning outcomes that might interact with the number of hours of provision. Settings will need to carefully consider the workload and wellbeing of their staff as hours are increased.
The evidence suggests that, on average, increasing the amount of early childhood education a child receives can produce moderate improvements of four additional months’ progress in academic performance. However, the benefits vary widely across studies.
There are also some indications that any learning gains related to extra hours may not be sustained into primary school unless the quality of provision in the extended time is of a high quality. One of the strongest predictors of achievement in schools at age 11 is the presence of an effective Foundation Year teacher. Without the continuation of high-quality provision, short-term improvements related to extra hours appear to “wash out” in primary school.
Most of the studies focus on children who are aged four or five, which makes it difficult to draw secure conclusions about the impact of extra hours on three-year-olds.
In the Australasian context, research exploring the impact of increased hours spent in preschool on children’s outcomes is limited. One 2009 study utilised data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) to look at the relationship between intensity of early childhood education and care attendance and developmental outcomes amongst children aged 4 and 5 years. They found children who had attended between 9 – 30 hours of early education and care per week had significantly better literacy and numeracy outcomes compared to those who attended between 1 – 8 hours per week. However, the same study indicated that too many hours in early childhood education and care seems to have some disadvantages, with children attending more than 30 hours found to have poorer receptive vocabulary skills, relative to those who attended for fewer hours.
Effects of extra hours of early childhood education can be seen in both early literacy (+ four months) and early mathematics (+ three months).
It is not possible to tell from existing evidence whether providing extra hours is a more promising strategy for three-year olds or for four-year olds.
Most studies have been conducted in the USA which could pose a risk to the transferability of findings, as there may be differences between the USA and other contexts that could result in different outcomes.
Although there were not enough studies to explore the relationship between extra hours and disadvantage systematically, studies in settings with a higher proportion of children experiencing socio-economic disadvantage tended to have above average effects, suggesting that this is likely to be a beneficial approach for this group.
Ensuring that cost does not present a barrier to families experiencing disadvantage, accessing additional hours of early childhood education may be an important factor in closing gaps in learning outcomes. In Australia, increasing numbers of children are entitled to free or low-cost 4‑year-old preschool (or equivalent) programs, with some jurisdictions extending this to include 3‑year-olds.
While adding extra hours may seem straightforward, careful planning is required to ensure that quality remains high. For example:
- Ensuring that any changes in provision are carefully planned for and building in space for practitioners to plan how to use time effectively.
- Considering the potential negative effects of additional time on concentration, and staff wellbeing and retention.
- Hours of provision in the early years have other considerations beyond learning outcomes – it is important to consider the way changes interact with parental engagement.
- Where extra costs of provision are borne by families there is a risk of increasing disadvantage gaps. It is important to consider how to mitigate any risks caused through reducing access for families experiencing disadvantage.
Given the high cost of increasing the number of hours of provision, particularly moving from half- to full-day, it is important to evaluate the impact of any activity in this area and consider approaches that might improve quality as more cost-effective alternatives.
Overall, the costs are estimated as very high with variation expected from differences arising from locality, type of setting and how the cost is split between governments, providers and families. Currently, the Australian Government provides a contribution of $1,340 per child to each state and territory which must be passed on to benefit children in the setting in which they attend preschool. The contribution helps to support the delivery of 15 hours of preschool a week for all children in the year before they start school (usually when they are four years old). State and territory governments may also provide funding to support free or low-cost preschool.
To extend preschool programs from 15 to 30 hours per child per week is estimated to add at least an additional $3,300 to existing subsidies per child per year. This does not account for the additional costs providers may incur from increasing hours, or the ongoing operational costs not covered by the subsidy, which are usually passed onto parents in the form of a fee.
The security of the evidence around extra hours is rated as very limited. 53 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. Overall, the topic lost additional padlocks 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.
- A large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers – typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.
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.