‘Big five’ education challenges: Ensuring all children get the best start in life

In 2015, Professor Geoff Masters identified the 'big five' challenges in school education in Australia. The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) is revisiting those challenges in a webinar series called 'The Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World' and the fourth session asks what progress has been made towards ensuring all children get off to the best start in life. Ahead of this week’s event, the expert panellists – Dr Dan Cloney (ACER Senior Research Fellow), Myra Geddes (General Manager Social Impact at not-for-profit service provider Goodstart Early Learning), and Mary-Ruth Mendel (Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation) – give an overview of what they will be discussing.

The Australian early childhood care and education (ECEC) sector has advanced rapidly under reforms started in the early 2000s. This has included the introduction of the national Early Years Learning Framework, and a new quality monitoring and regulatory framework for early childhood services to establish nationally consistent minimum standards in relation to teacher and educator qualifications and ratios. And progress has been made towards universal access to preschool – 87.7 per cent of children were enrolled in a preschool program in the year before school in 2019 (Productivity Commission, 2021); up from 69.9 per cent in 2007 (Productivity Commission, 2010). [1]

There is clear recognition of the importance of ECEC and the fact that high quality early education can ensure children get off to the best start in life.

In the Five challenges in Australian school education published in 2016, high quality ECEC was described as essential to ensuring children arrive at school ready to learn. The report highlighted the fact that 22 per cent of children were developmentally vulnerable in their first year of school. Developmentally vulnerable children are those who are in the bottom 10 per cent of children (based on 2009 results) for one or more of the domains of physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, and communication skills and general knowledge.

The level of developmental vulnerability has persisted, with 21.7 per cent vulnerable on one or more domains in 2018, according to Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) data. The conclusion drawn in the Five challenges in Australian school education paper, was that participation in high quality ECEC is essential to reduce the number of children at risk of poorer developmental outcomes.

Today, there remains significant barriers to access and participation in high quality early childhood programs. Until these barriers are overcome, it is unlikely that we will deliver on our intent to ensure all children have the best start in life and this has lasting implications for their success at school.

Current evidence

Perhaps the most significant challenge is that we know that children are falling behind well before they arrive at school. The AEDC, whilst an important headline indicator of the state of children’s early development, does not tell us when differences between children emerge, if they compound and grow larger over time, how contextual factors like disadvantage play a role and, most importantly, what to do to optimally support each child’s learning.

We know that language, cognitive and social skills are rapidly developing in the first few years in life (Harvard University). Certainly, the ages 0-3 years represent a time when children are rapidly developing foundational skills like oral language, and these skills are harder to teach later (Heckman) if young children miss out. Australian research (Tayler et al., 2016) shows that differences in children’s verbal ability (their receptive and expressive vocabulary and their verbal comprehension) emerge by age three, and these differences grow wider and start to fall outside our typical expectations for development two years later when children are beginning school. Worryingly, even at age three, the children most likely to be behind are from families with the fewest resources and living in the most disadvantaged areas (Tayler et al., 2015).

The current ECEC system is not set up to detect these differences early and to intervene on children most likely to be developmentally vulnerable. New evidence from The Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority finds that quality ECEC programs are more likely to be found in more advantaged areas (ACECQA, 2020). This backs up earlier Australian evidence that found there were fewer high-quality programs in less affluent neighbourhoods (Cloney et al., 2016a), and that children from low socioeconomic status backgrounds were less likely to attend high quality programs (Cloney et al., 2016b).

How to ensure all children get the best start in life

The first step in ensuring all children get the best start in life is to ensure that all children can attend a high-quality ECEC program. Currently, access to ECEC programs and subsidy is determined by the amount of work, study or training undertaken by parents. There is a need to reduce barriers to participating, particularly for families with limited resources. Further, quality improvement efforts must be targeted to ensure that the quality-SES gradient is addressed. This is challenging in a mixed-market system often driven by a fee-for-service model (Tori, et al., 2017).

It is imperative that we give educators the knowledge and skills to know what children can do and what they should be supporting them to do next. This involves developing an understanding of what learning trajectories look like across the early childhood period, into school, and into adulthood. Importantly, more work is needed to ensure children that need extra support are identified early so educators can get them the support they need so they can thrive.

For example, the oral language and pre-literacy skills that children develop belong on the same developmental continuum (Waters, 2019) as school-age literacy, yet there are no tools that capture this common development over the course of childhood that are available to early educators, (Cloney et al., 2019) and measures like AEDC at school entry, and NAPLAN and formative assessments when children reach school, speak their own language with few links to earlier development.

More needs to be done to support educators to understand the dimensions of child development and how it connects to later learning. Building this knowledge will give them the skills to describe their impact and to know that children are growing and developing and not falling further and further behind.

Importantly, we must think about how we can improve access and participation in high quality ECEC programs at scale. This includes thinking about how we can use data more effectively to target gaps and vulnerabilities on an ongoing basis. This can only be done with effective monitoring of both the quality of programs but also the contextual factors affecting family participation and the learning and development gains experienced by children.

Part of the solution of going to scale is to invest more. Countries like Canada have a long tradition of thinking about barriers to access to early childhood programs. The Province of Quebec introduced universal access to five dollar a day childcare in 1997 (Kottelenberg & Lehrer, 2013). Just this week, the Federal Government announced an additional CAD$30 billion to support the entire country to offer universal access to early childhood programs for CAD$10 a day over the next five years. Compare that to Australia where children’s participation is contingent on their parents being in work, study or training and out of pocket prices for early childhood programs can easily be AUD$50 a day today (Crowley et al., 2021).

Addressing equity of access and quality in ECEC is in the national interest. And as education professionals it’s in our interest to set toddlers and pre-schoolers up for success, because regardless of if we work in prep classrooms, middle school, Year 12, TAFE, university or Government – we will all eventually reap the benefits of giving children the best start in life.

We’ll be discussing more steps we can take in the next webinar in the ‘Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World’ series, and invite you be a part of the conversation.

Join Dr Dan Cloney, Mary-Ruth Mendel, and Myra Geddes for the free webinar Getting all children off to the best start in life: The Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World on Wednesday, 5 May 2021 at 4pm (AEST). Click on the link for more details and to register.

The first three webinars in the series are available to watch on YouTube:

Diary date: The final event in the series will be on Wednesday 19 May at 4pm (AEST) – Raising the professional status of teaching: The Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World. ACER’s Dr Hilary Hollingsworth and Dr Kerry Elliott will be joined by Principal of Berwick Chase Primary School in Victoria, Chris Short. For more information and to register, click on the link.

[1] Although it should be noted that the 2019 figure has been in slight decline since 2016 (for example the reported figure for 2018 was 88.5 per cent). Note also that the figure reported is the proportion of children in preschool in the year before school but these two figures are not exactly comparable due to changes in method and data sources between 2006 and 2021.


Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (2020). Quality ratings by socio-economic status of areas. ACECQA. https://www.acecqa.gov.au/latest-news/our-latest-occasional-paper-highlights-variation-quality-ratings-across-socio-economic

Cloney, D., Cleveland, G., Hattie, J., & Tayler, C. (2016a). Variations in the availability and quality of early childhood education and care by socioeconomic status of neighborhoods. Early Education and Development, 27(3), 384-401. https://doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2015.1076674

Cloney, D., Tayler, C., Hattie, J., Cleveland, G., & Adams, R. (2016b). The selection of ECEC programs by Australian families: Quality, availability, usage and family demographics. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 41(4), 16-27. https://doi.org/10.1177/183693911604100403

Cloney, D., Jackson, J., & Mitchell, P. (2019). Assessment of children as confident and involved learners in early childhood education and care: Literature review. Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework. Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. https://www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/Documents/earlyyears/EYLitReviewLearning.pdf (PDF, 378Kb)

Crowley, T., Wood, D., & Tonini, K. (2021, January 26). New data a reminder that high childcare costs continue to bite in Australia. Grattan Blog. https://blog.grattan.edu.au/2021/01/high-childcare-costs-continue-to-bite/

Harvard University. (n.d). Key concepts: Brain architecture. Centre on the Developing Child. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/

Heckman. (n.d). The Heckman Curve. https://heckmanequation.org/resource/the-heckman-curve/

Kottelenberg, M. J., & Lehrer, S. F. (2013). New Evidence on the Impacts of Access to and Attending Universal Childcare in Canada. NBER Working Paper No. 12840. National Bureau of Economic Research. https://www.nber.org/papers/w18785

Masters, G.N. (2016). Five challenges in Australian school education. Policy Insights Issue 5. ACER. https://research.acer.edu.au/policyinsights/5/

Productivity Commission. (2021). Report on Government Services. Part B, Section 3: Early Childhood and Care. Australian Government. https://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2021/child-care-education-and-training/early-childhood-education-and-care

Productivity Commission. (2010). Report on Government Services: 2010. Australian Government.

Tayler, C., Cloney, D., & Niklas, F. (2015). A bird in the hand: Understanding the trajectories of development of young children and the need for action to improve outcomes. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 40(3), 51-60. https://doi.org/10.1177/183693911504000308

Tayler, C., Cloney, D., Niklas, F., Cohrssen, C., Thorpe, K., Page, J., & D’Aprano, A. (2016). Final report to the Partner Organisations for the Effective Early Education Experiences (E4Kids) Study. Melbourne Graduate School of Education. https://doi.org/10.4225/49/58f99f47a2ab4

Torii, K., Fox, S., & Cloney, D. (2017). Quality is key in Early Childhood Education in Australia (No. 01/2017; Mitchell Institute Policy Paper). Mitchell Institute. https://www.vu.edu.au/mitchell-institute/early-childhood-education/quality-is-key-in-early-childhood-education-in-australia

Waters, C. (2019, October 1). Learn more about learning progressions. Discover. ACER. https://www.acer.org/au/discover/article/learn-more-about-learning-progressions