Universal access to preschool: achievements and gaps

Submission to the Review of the Universal Access National Partnership

The primary objective of the Universal Access National Partnership (UANP) is ‘to facilitate children’s early learning and development and transition to school, by maintaining universal access to, and improving participation in, affordable, quality early childhood education programs for all children’ (Department of Education, 2018). This objective is being achieved to a significant extent:

  • Most jurisdictions are close to or exceeding the UANP benchmarks for access, which means the vast majority of children are benefiting from preschool in the year before school. UANP reporting indicates 100% enrolment nationally and a clear trend of improvement across all performance indicators, including for equity groups (Department of Education, 2018). UANP enrolment figures may be overstated due to methodological discrepancies between jurisdictions, and figures in the Report on Government Services (RoGS) may be closer to actuals. According to RoGS figures, 90.1% of Australian children are enrolled, with the rate of enrolment across jurisdictions ranging from 83-100% (Productivity Commission, 2019). Despite these discrepancies, the trend of increasing enrolments holds across both datasets.

  • While published UANP reporting does not track affordability, high levels of enrolment appear to indicate that preschool programs are affordable to the vast majority of Australian families. It is worth noting, however, that RoGs enrolment figures, which we believe to be closer to actuals, indicate that around 10% of children may be missing out on preschool in the year before school, and data show that many of these children come from target equity groups (Warren et al., 2016). Targeted programs implemented by jurisdictions to reduce or waive fees are addressing these gaps, and are instrumental in achieving affordability.
  • Evidence suggests that the UANP has improved the quality of education and care in the year before school. National Quality Standard (NQS) data show a clear trend of improvement across all early childhood education and care (ECEC) services since 2013 (ACECQA, 2019). The Australian Effective Early Educational Experiences (E4Kids) study found that gaps in ECEC quality for children from lower socio-economic status (SES) families, compared with children from higher SES families, narrowed as the study cohort got older (Torii et al., 2016). This is likely due to quality improvements in preschool programs as a result of increased investment under the UANP, and represents a significant policy outcome to improve equity (Torii et al., 2017).

Areas in which achievement is less clear, or where gaps remain, include:

  • Participation by equity groups shows a clear trend of improvement since the establishment of the UANP (Department of Education, 2018 & Productivity Commission, 2019). While participation for these groups is increasing according to enrolment trends, concerns remain about levels of attendance and genuine engagement in preschool (Warren et al., 2016). This is not reflected in the UANP indicators, but remains a key area for improvement.
  • Quality is critical to achieving the UANP’s primary objective, but not well measured in UANP reporting. The sole measure of quality that is tracked through indicators is the proportion of programs delivered by a degree-qualified early childhood teacher who meets National Quality Framework (NQF) standards. Educator qualifications are a useful benchmark to track, but a crude proxy for measuring quality (refer to question two for more detail).
  • A significant number of services are still not meeting quality standards, and gaps are concentrated in areas of disadvantage. While the majority of preschools are performing well across all quality areas, 5-15% of long day care services are still working towards the NQS, including 15% of services that do not yet meet the standard for educational program and practice (ACECQA, 2019). According to NQS data, over 40% of preschools not meeting the NQS are in low-SES communities (ACECQA, 2019).

In summary, top-line data show that the UANP is meeting policy objectives to a large extent. In terms of universal access, there is little doubt that the UANP is delivering significant benefits to Australian children and families. But gaps remain that limit our ability maximise outcomes for all children. The past decade has focused largely on access, affordability, and establishing the structural foundations of quality. The priority now must be on process quality – the practice of early childhood educators and the everyday experience of children in ECEC settings (Cloney & Fox, 2017).