Opinion

An extra year of early education in NSW and Victoria: what do experts think of the plan?

In June, New South Wales and Victoria announced the overhaul of early education, effectively adding an extra year. And on Tuesday the NSW education minister, Sarah Mitchell, said lifting the school starting age to the year a child turns six would reduce large age gaps and put students on a more equal footing. Four experts explain the advantages and challenges of such changes:

‘Affordability remains a key barrier’

The NSW government’s proposal to lift the school starting age to the year a child turns six has potential to benefit children but it will only work if the longstanding workforce crisis – exacerbated by Covid – is addressed.

I appreciate the intent to reduce the discrepancy in ages and abilities of children when they start school. This is an incredible challenge for kindergarten teachers, particularly when we know that families send their children to school before they are ready because school is more affordable than childcare. And we know this is a problem because one in five children are starting school developmentally vulnerable.

Children effectively attending for an additional year (the year they turn five) will only benefit if the service they are attending is providing quality early learning programs.

What the new year of preschool education means for parents and children

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The workforce crisis poses a significant threat to the quality of early education. Enrolments in early childhood teacher education course are declining and many early teachers choose to leave early childhood to work in a school where they can earn up to $30,000 more a year.

The sector already needs an extra 7,000 early childhood teachers by 2024 if services are to meet regulatory requirements. The proposal has the potential to increase demand but from where the quality early childhood teacher workforce will come remains unclear.

We need to think carefully about what such a proposal will mean for children in families experiencing disadvantage. We know that the children who stand to benefit most from attending a quality early education service are also the least likely to attend, even if they are enrolled. Affordability remains a key barrier.

The NSW initiatives to improve children’s access to early education are welcome. But as these polices are rolled out the state government will need to ensure that not only are more children attending early learning services, but that the quality of these services is of the standard children need and deserve.

Assoc Prof Marianne Fenech is program director for early education at the University of Sydney and chair of the Australian Early Childhood Teacher Education Network

‘Parents must have the opportunity to decide’

I have three children who are vastly different in terms of their learning styles, skills and interests. My eldest knew her alphabet at 18 months old and was reading short picture books at four, and four years on she’s flourishing as one of the top students in her grade despite being born one day short of the cut-off. Holding her back, I believe, would have been detrimental to her potential. By contrast, my son will start school unable to identify more than a handful of letters despite the extensive efforts of both his parents and the staff at his preschool.

I believe parents must have the opportunity to decide for themselves (within reason) the path that is right for their child. Of course, this all depends on what the government’s plan will actually look like for families, because at present the details are far from clear.

While I understand the merits of raising the starting school age so more children are on an even footing when they begin, the reality is that no matter how they begin, the educational experiences of our children will never be equal. The difference in funding between public schools and private schools, the mass tutoring uptake by some families and the fact that some teachers are burnt-out and some families – due to work commitments or language/cultural barriers – can’t help their kids with homework will entrench inevitable differences.

If the government plans to fund this program in its entirety, then it’s a conversation I’m willing to have. But having a child starting school is liberating for parents who are juggling care and work duties, often with workplaces who are not as progressive as they could be in terms of flexible working arrangements. The cost of childcare, which hits families hard without the added burdens of inflation and rising interest rates, must be addressed if we are planning on keeping our kids away from school another year. I have always firmly believed that the best place for the child is their family or their “village”, but life is less and less like a village these days and the fact that it is mostly disadvantaged families who send their kids to school before they’re ready because it saves childcare costs and frees parents up to work tells us that are there more pressing matters the state ought to address to even out our children’s lives. A lack of equality has a ripple effect.

Sarah Ayoub is a journalist, academic and author of books for young adults and children

‘This could reduce the wide age ranges in the classroom’

NSW students have some of the highest rates of delayed entrants in the world. Our research suggests 25% of students start school in the year after they are eligible and, for those parents who have a choice in the matter (who have children born between January and July), 44% are delayed. As a consequence, children range in ages from four and a half to six in the first year of school. Children starting school at younger ages have lower levels of school readiness than older children and more socioeconomically advantaged parents are more likely to choose to delay, thus widening gaps in school readiness by socioeconomic status.

Will raising the school age reduce these gaps? For many parents, having older children may mean that they are more likely to send their child to school on time. If the NSW government also reduces the opportunity to delay school start (from between January and July to, say, January and April, as in Victoria), this could reduce the wide age ranges in the classroom.

Ben Edwards is associate professor of child and youth development at the Australian National University

‘Early childhood education in NSW works as an un-equaliser’

Moving the school starting age to the year a child turns six is a great improvement to the situation in NSW but only if the government will keep its early promise to provide universal free public early childhood education (kindergarten) to all five-year-olds.

Lifting the school starting age is part of much larger effort to improve lives of children in NSW. Research examining the benefits of starting formal schooling earlier is not consistent.Early childhood education in NSW works as an “un-equaliser” because it gives children from affluent and disadvantaged families very different conditions. If the NSW government goes about these changes the right way, they may act as much-needed improvements in educational equity.

I would suggest the following three things be important in putting these reforms into practice.

First, early childhood education (including primary school) needs to be designed in terms of a child’s rights. Play, wellbeing and whole-child development should be the key principles.

Second, every five-year-old should have the right to attend a high-quality public preschool. It should be the government’s responsibility to make sure this right is protected, and that well-educated teachers and educators are working in every school.

Third, the first years of primary school should be redesigned so that they provide a seamless, play-based transition from early childhood education. This design should consider children’s individual differences, focus on learning and wellbeing, and avoid unnecessary assessments and tests.

Most importantly, lifting the school starting age to six should not mean that the first years of primary school become a time to catch up on academic content children were supposed to learn before.

This proposal by the NSW government is a real opportunity to redesign the educational pathway of every child to improve not just lifelong learning but also to remove the burden placed on many parents who want nothing more than give their children the best education they can have.

Pasi Sahlberg is professor of education at Southern Cross University

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