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Early Childhood
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Can Australia meet United Nations goals for education?

A recent UNICEF report on Australia’s performance against UN Sustainable Development Goals asked questions about our failure to meet interim education targets. Dan Cloney’s presentation at the Future Schools conference proposed answers.

Research shows that access – or lack of access – to good quality primary and pre-primary education has a lifelong impact, an issue given a global focus in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 4.1 and 4.2. It is tempting to think of these targets in relation to developing economies alone, but perhaps we should also look closer to home. How does Australia compare when it comes to providing high quality early learning for all?

By some standards, we are doing well. We are on track to ensure all children have access to pre-primary education. The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services (RoGS) shows that more than 92 per cent of children attend a preschool program in the year before school and 94 per cent of those children receive the 15 hours per week afforded under the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education. Many children are also ready for primary education, with findings from the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) showing that 22 per cent are considered developmentally vulnerable on one domain of development – a figure that has been stable or falling slightly since 2009.

However, dig deeper and there are equity issues of concern. Children who are behind at two and three years old continue to lag behind at Year 3 NAPLAN testing by up to two bands compared to their more developed peers; early childhood education and care (ECEC) programs are not closing this gap. What’s more, children from low socioeconomic status (SES) families and neighbourhoods – those more likely to be behind early – have less access to good quality early childhood services.

If Australia is to meet its responsibility to its citizens to ensure access to high-quality pre-primary education for all – the goal of SDG 4.2 – we need to take urgent steps towards making the ECEC market more equitable.

Three key measures may make a world of difference to Australia’s children. They are:

  • securing sufficient long-term investment in all early childhood services to continually lift quality
  • increasing the availability and quality of early learning in low SES communities
  • ensuring educators have the skills and resources to identify children who require additional support to reach their learning and development potential.

Until then, it looks unlikely that Australia – a wealthy, well-developed economy with an enviable standard of living – will meet its international commitment to the United Nations goals and will continue to fail a highly vulnerable community: underprivileged children. ■

RD

About the author

Dr Dan Cloney is a Research Fellow in ACER's Teaching, Learning and Leadership research program.

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View selected works of Dan Cloney

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