What is quality early learning worth to Australian families?

Life is about to get easier for some Australian families who have two parents working, as they will be eligible for higher childcare subsidies when the new Child Care Package kicks off on 2 July. But how does the cost to families compare in other countries? And what is the real value of early learning for children and families?

Beyond being a necessity for working parents, quality early learning supports families by amplifying children’s social, emotional and cognitive development.

The landmark UK Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education project found that children who attended high-quality early learning for at least two years before starting school had improved ability to regulate their emotions and better pro-social skills at age 14, when compared to children attending poor quality or no early learning (Fox & Geddes, 2016, p. 28). They also had higher English and maths grades, and were more likely to go on to higher education.

Parents can see these benefits for themselves—in a national survey of almost 3000 Australian parents, led by the Early Learning: Everyone Benefits campaign, more than 90 per cent of parents said their children had improved their social skills, confidence and emotional capacity as a result of attending early learning. These 2700 parents said they had observed improvements in their children’s thinking, speaking and listening skills, and in their engagement in creative projects (Early Learning: Everyone Benefits, 2017).

The value of improved emotional self-regulation, social skills and self confidence can’t be underestimated. These are the foundation for children to succeed in their interactions with other children and with adults, and for them to succeed at school and in life.

Children who aren’t able to understand and manage their emotions can develop conduct and behaviour problems that can persist through to their teenage years. It’s in high-quality early learning programs that these problems can be picked up and addressed before they become a fixed pattern (Moore & McDonald, 2013, p. 14).

Where there is strong collaboration with parents in early learning services, educators are able to pass on to parents ways to help their children deal with their emotions, to respond positively to behavioural issues, and develop positive communication with their children.

When the benefits to children, families and society are so strong, it is of great concern that families in Australia bear a greater burden of the cost of early learning than families in other developed and developing countries.

Governments in countries like Sweden and New Zealand, and even less developed countries like Poland and Mexico, understand that the benefits of early learning to children, families and society far outweigh the costs of providing quality early learning for all children.

In fact, Australia has one of the lowest rates of government funding of all countries assessed in the OECD’s Education at a Glance (2017a) and Starting Strong (2017b) reports. According to the latest data (see Figure 1), the Australian government provides 66 per cent, or two thirds, of the cost of child care and preschool programs, and households pay one third (33.4 per cent). New Zealand families pay half that—only 15.4 per cent. Scandinavian governments pay more than 90 per cent of the cost of early learning—the Swedish government covers 94.4 per cent and families only pay 5.6 per cent of the cost of sending their children to early learning.

Figure 1. Proportion of public and private expenditure (2014)

Source: Education at a glance data, May 2018 (OECD.Stat, 2018)               

Swedish policy states: parents should only have to spend 3–6 per cent of the family’s income on child care; low income families pay nothing; and costs for affluent families are capped. Importantly, children, whose parents are unemployed or on parental leave with a younger sibling, are entitled to at least 15 hours per week of child care (OECD, 2017, p. 28).

New Zealand also has a more generous approach to funding early learning than Australia has. In New Zealand, all three and four year olds have FREE access to early learning for 20 hours per week, with no ‘activity test’—as you can see from Figure 1, the New Zealand government covers more than 80 per cent of the cost of early learning.

These countries do not impose conditions on families receiving support for child care and early learning—unlike the Australian government, which is imposing a strict new ‘activity test’ for families to receive the new Child Care Subsidy. Under this new activity test, BOTH parents will need to prove that they are working or studying for more than eight hours a fortnight to be eligible. 

The new Child Care Package should just be the first step in our government taking greater steps to make early learning affordable. Next we need to make it available for all Australian children for at least two days per week, regardless of the parents’ work or study circumstances, to ensure that all children can reap the benefits that high-quality early learning can bring.



Early Learning: Everyone Benefits. (2017). Families understand the benefits of early learning for their children. Benefits and Barriers of Early Learning survey, 2017. Retrieved from www.everyonebenefits.org.au/families_understand_the_benefits_of_early_learning_for_their_children.

Fox, S., & Geddes, M. (2016). Preschool—Two years are better than one. Developing a universal preschool program for Australian 3 year olds—evidence, policy and implementation. Mitchell Institute Policy Paper No. 03/2016. Melbourne, Vic.: Mitchell Institute.

Moore, T. G., & McDonald, M. (2013). Acting Early, Changing Lives: How prevention and early action saves money and improves wellbeing. Prepared for The Benevolent Society. Parkville, Vic.: Centre for Community Child Health at The Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and The Royal Children’s Hospital. Retrieved from www.communityhubs.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/acting-early-changing-lives.pdf.

OECD. (2017a). Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators. Paris, France: OECD Publishing.

OECD. (2017b). Starting Strong 2017: Key OECD indicators on early childhood education and care. Paris, France: OECD Publishing.

OECD.Stat. (May, 2018). Educational finance indicators. Education at a Glance data. Retrieved from http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?datasetcode=EAG_FIN_RATIO_CATEGORY.