Why Australian three year olds miss out

How can we say that three-year-olds in Australia are currently missing out on early learning compared to children in other countries? On one hand, children in Australia have a better chance of attending a quality early learning service than children in other countries, because Australia has national quality measures in place, such as the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and the National Quality Standard (NQS). But, on the other hand, we have fewer three-year-olds participating in this quality early learning system compared to other OECD countries.

Why is quality early learning, two years before school, beneficial to children? And, how can we improve participation in Australia?

Of nearly 16 000 services approved to operate under the National Quality Framework (NQF), the latest NQF Snapshot (ACECQA, 2018) shows 94 per cent of these services have been assessed, and 77 per cent of them meet or exceed the NQS.

This is an achievement to be proud of.

But according to the latest OECD report Education at a Glance, 2017 OECD Indicators  only about 68 per cent of three-year-olds in Australia attend an early learning service. Countries in the OECD Top Ten have nearly 100 per cent of three-year-olds attending. Out of 35 OECD countries, 24 have a higher attendance of three-year-olds in early learning than we do:

  Three year old enrolment    
Country Total Preschool Program - ISCED 02 Childcare  - ISCED 01
UK, Israel 100 100  
France 99 99  
Norway, Spain 95 95  
Korea 92 92  
New Zealand 89 89  
Australia 68 21 47
Chile 56 49 6

Source: Table C2.1 Enrolment rates in early childhood and primary education, by age (2005 and 2015) in Education at a glance 2017: OECD indicators (p. 269).  
* ISCED 01 = Early childhood development programs; ISCED 02 = Pre-primary education.

Another striking difference seen in this table  is that in nearly all these countries, most three-year-olds were attending a preschool program, while in Australia, only 21 per cent of three-year-olds were considered to be attending a preschool program.

It’s not clear if this is due to poor data collection in Australia —whether all the three-year-olds attending preschool programs in long day care are being counted or not—or if fewer three-year-olds are able to participate in preschool programs because all the places are filled by four- to five-year-olds, who receive federal funding?

But one thing is clear: we need to pay more attention to increasing participation in early learning for three-year-olds.

According to our report, State of Early Learning in Australia 2017 (Early Learning: Everyone Benefits, 2017) Australia has made impressive progress in preschool participation in the year before school, with 91 per cent of four- and five-year-olds enrolled in preschool for more than 600 hours per year in 2015. This number is significantly up from just 12 per cent in 2008 (p. 3).

The landmark Lifting Our Game  (Pascoe & Brennan, 2017), released in February this year, recommends extending universal access to preschool programs for three-year-olds as ‘the single most impactful reform Australia could undertake, with international comparisons highlighting it as the biggest gap in the current system’ (p. 8).

The report says: ‘The case for extending universal access to three year olds is strong. Many jurisdictions already provide targeted support, and moving to universal access for children in this age group will make a real and cost-effective contribution to improving school outcomes in Australia’ (p. 80).

The evidence for the benefits of children participating in two years of preschool are outlined in the Mitchell Institutes Two years are better than one report (Fox & Geddes, 2016). It summarises the following benefits:

Two years of high-quality preschool can be transformative. It lifts educational achievement for all children and especially benefits the children most likely to experience developmental vulnerability.

There are many studies that show the long-lasting positive impact of two years of preschool for all children, regardless of socio-economic status.

  • A landmark UK study showed that students who attended 2-3 years of preschool obtained higher  total final exam scores (effect size 0.38), better grades in English (effect size 0.28) and in maths (effect size 0.30), and took more final year exams (Sammons et al 2014).

  • Analysis of international test results (PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS) show that, across the population, children with at least two years of preschool achieve much higher scores at age 15 than those who attend no preschool or only one year (Mullis et al 2012).

  • The Abbott Pre-K program in New Jersey found much higher impacts for the for the children who attended from age 3 (Barnett et al 2013).

IN April 2018, 36 early childhood, child development and parenting organisations joined a united call for the Federal Government to “increase participation of all children in quality early childhood education for at least 600 hours per year for two years before school.”

Their letter to the Prime Minister states:

"A strong, prosperous society is underpinned by the accessibility, affordability and quality of our education system, beginning in the earliest years. Investing in early childhood education is a mechanism towards all children achieving their potential. It sets them up for a successful transition into school plus academic, health and social success long into the future. The benefits for children experiencing disadvantage and vulnerability are particularly amplified."

How you can help Australian children benefit from quality early learning:

  • Share our infographic "Why do Australian three-year-olds miss out?"
  • Share this blog with friends and colleagues
  • Watch and share our video about the benefits of early learning
  • Listen to and share this ABC Life Matters segment
  • Speak up for the benefits of quality early learning with friends, family, colleagues


Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. (ACECQA). (2018). NQF Snapshot. Retrieved from www.acecqa.gov.au/nqf/snapshots.

Barnett, W. S., Jung, K., Youn, M. J., & Frede, E. C. (2013). Abbott preschool program longitudinal effects study: Fifth grade follow-up. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research/Rutgers—The State University of New Jersey.

Early Learning: Everyone Benefits. (2017). State of early learning in Australia 2017. Canberra, ACT: Early Childhood Australia. Retrieved from www.everyonebenefits.org.au/resources.

 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 Report No. 3/2016. Retrieved from www.mitchellinstitute.org.au/reports/two-years-preschool/.

Mullis, I., Martin, M., Foy, P., & Drucker, K. (2012) PIRLS 2011 international results in reading. Chestnut Hill, MA: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, and International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Retrieved from http://timssandpirls.bc.edu/pirls2011/downloads/P11_IR_FullBook.pdf.

OECD. (2017). Education at a glance 2017: OECD indicators. Retrieved from www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance-19991487.htm.

Pascoe, S., & Brennan, D. (2017). Lifting our Game: Report of the review to achieve educational excellence in Australian schools through early childhood interventions. Retrieved from www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/research/LiftingOurGame.PDF.

Sammons, P., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Siraj, I., Taggart, B., Toth, K., & Smees, R. (2014). Influences on students’ GCSE attainment and progress at age 16: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE) research report. London, UK: Department for Education. Retrieved from www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/research/pdf/16-Influences-Students-GCSE-Attainment-Progress-RR.pdf.