Just 67 per cent of three-year-old children in Australia were enrolled in early childhood education in 2017, 12 percentage points below the OECD average and well behind countries such as Israel, the United Kingdom and France, all of which have a three-year-old enrolment rate of 100 per cent.
By the time children reach the age of four, the gap in enrolment between Australia and the average OECD country is significantly lessened, sitting at just two per cent.
Bill Shorten campaigned unsuccessfully on extending federally funded preschool to cover three-year-olds earlier this year, a point of difference between his Labor opposition and the Government.
In Victoria, the Andrews Labor Government last year won re-election on a similar promise and aims to provide 15 hours per week of subsidised Kindergarten to every Victorian three-year-old by 2029.
Early Childhood Australia (ECA) CEO Sam Page said that two years of preschool for every student would be the “best investment” Australia could make in its education system.
“If we had every child come in for two years before they transition to school, we would get better success in that transition and better outcomes long-term, because we really can set children up for lifelong learning,” she said.
Children are better equipped to develop early literacy skills after two years of early childhood education, Page argued.
“For children to learn to be literate they need to have language, so vocabulary plays an enormously important part in children's preparation for school,” she said.
“It's not that we need them to come to preschool to learn how to read, but we need them to come to preschool to develop the vocabulary that will allow them to read later on. That's one of the things that makes a significant difference, is children coming for two years to preschool.
“It increases their vocabulary, it increases their cognitive development and readiness for school, it helps them develop their social emotional regulation, so that will set them up for a more successful transition to school.”
The Australian Education Union (AEU) said that the prime minister's "neglect" of preschool is leaving Aussie kids behind.
“These latest OECD figures show that Australia is already lagging behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to funding early childhood education,” AEU president Correna Haythorpe said.
“Australia is just one of eleven OECD nations which do not provide two years of early childhood education.
“Scott Morrison’s failure to guarantee ongoing funding for two years of preschool for every three and four-year-old child makes absolutely no sense. Two years of early child education is fast becoming the global standard.
“In addition, the Morrison Government’s refusal to guarantee funding for any sort of early childhood education past July 2020 means that our ECE sector will continue to fall further and further behind.”
Although Australia's preschool enrolment rate remains low, it has increased in recent years.
Between 2010 and 2017, the overall enrolment rate for three to five-year-olds climbed from 74 per cent to 84 per cent.
It’s worth noting that most Australian five-year-olds are already enrolled in primary school, which skews this figure higher than it should be. In most other OECD countries children don't start primary school until they are six.