VCOSS recently published its 2016-17 State Budget Submission Putting people back in the picture. A series of blogs will examine some of the proposals in the submission.
The first five years of life are crucial for children’s healthy development, and to shape the way children learn, develop and form relationships. Engaging in high quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) can significantly improve a child’s success at school and bring long-lasting benefits, particularly for vulnerable children. Children who participate in at least one year of kindergarten have on average higher overall development, learning and cognitive, and social-emotional outcomes, than children who have not participated. Longitudinal studies demonstrate that longer time spent in kindergarten (in months) is linked to improved independence, concentration and sociability, as well as improved exam scores and grades in the final year of school.
Investment in high-quality early childhood programs also delivers clear economic value, returning between $1.50 and $2.78 for every dollar invested, with the potential for much greater returns, of up to $16, for targeted programs which support disadvantaged children.  PWC estimates that the benefits to the Australian economy would be $13.3 billion dollars by 2050, if all children experiencing disadvantage were to participate in ECEC services.
The VCOSS 2016-17 State Budget Submission Putting people back in the picture calls on the Victorian government to support all children’s learning, development and wellbeing, by providing access to high quality, affordable early learning services, from birth through to school. As a starting point, this could include providing every child with a minimum of 5 hours of three-year-old kindergarten and committing to ongoing funding for a minimum of 15 hours of four-year-old kindergarten per week, with additional support for children from disadvantaged families.
While both the federal and state governments have agreed to provide 15 hours of four-year-old kindergarten, this funding is only secured until 2017. Given the large benefits kindergarten can provide both to children and wider society, this funding should be made ongoing and be extended to a minimum of three days per week (i.e. 20 – 22 hours), especially for vulnerable children.
Three-year-old kindergarten is not funded by the Victorian government, with the exception of Early Start Kindergarten program which is available to Aboriginal children and children known to child protection. As a result too many children miss out on the opportunity to engage in early learning, particularly children from low-income families, where costs pose a significant barrier to participation.
The benefits of investing in universal access to three-year-old kindergarten have been recognised by many European countries, with a 2014 OECD report finding that:
“Most countries in this region [Europe] provide all children with at least two years of free, publicly funded pre-primary education in schools before they begin primary education. With the exception of Ireland and the Netherlands, such access is generally a statutory right from the age of 3, and in some countries, even before then.” 
Consequently, many European countries have high ECEC participation rates among three-year-old children, with the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden, all reporting participation rates over 90 per cent. In comparison, Australia performs poorly, with only 18 per cent of three-year-olds participating in early childhood education, well below these European countries and the OECD average of 70 per cent.
Enrolment rates of three-year-old children in early childhood education (2005 and 2012)
Source: OECD, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, OECD, 2014, p.318.
While good progress has been made to raise the participation rates in four-year-old kindergarten across Victoria, some vulnerable children are still missing out. Families from disadvantaged background continue to have lower access and participation in early years services. And services targeted towards supporting vulnerable families, such as Early Start Kindergarten remain underutilised. For example, only 791 children were enrolled in Early Start Kindergarten in 2014, yet approximately 3,500 children aged three are subject to a child protection order, meaning children who would benefit most from early years services are missing out.
There are multiple and interrelated barriers that may affect the participation of vulnerable families in early years services, including structural barriers such as cost, poor physical accessibility or lack of access to transport options and lack of cultural sensitivity, as well as child and family specific barriers such as experiencing mental health problems, transience and homelessness. VCOSS members also suggest that the stigma of poverty can be a deterrent for engagement with programs targeted at supporting families experiencing disadvantage. Work commitments can prevent single parents participating in early years services and the paperwork required to engage in service may also pose a barrier for parents/carers with low-levels of English literacy and numeracy skills. Lack of service was also cited as an issue particularly in growth corridors and rural Victoria. Some families may not engage with early services because they are not offering what they or their community need.
The Victorian government can increase participation in early learning among vulnerable children, by better understanding and removing the barriers to accessing and participating in early years services. This could include supporting early years services to be welcoming, accessible and culturally safe for all children and families and tailoring services to meets the needs of their local communities. Integrating early learning services with other child, family and communityservices, providing outreach services to help reach families, as well as providing transport to and from services for families that need it, would also help improve participation. Lessons can be learnt from initiative such as the Access to Early Learning pilot program and Bubup Wilam for Early Learning.
In addition to improving children’s involvement in early learning, the VCOSS 2016 -17 State Budget Submission outlines a number of priorities to deliver an equitable education system and help every child to fulfil their potential including:
- Help children get the most out of early learning and care by strengthening quality
- Provide children and families holistic support from integrated services
- Help children transition successfully to secondary school with ‘middle years’ plans
- Help young people stay in education by expanding flexible learning models
- Better support students with additional needs through the Program for Students with Disabilities
 C Gong, J McNamara and R Cassells, AMP.NATSEM Income and Wealth Report: Issue 28 – Little Australians: Differences in early childhood development, Sydney, AMP.NATSEM, April 2011, p.10.
 C Gong et. al., Op. Cit.
 K Sylva, E Melhuish, P Sammons, I Siraj and B Taggart, Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16) Project Research Report, September 2014, Institute of Education, University of London, 2014, p. 18
 C Alexander and D Ignjatovic, Early childhood education has widespread and long lasting benefits, TD Economics, 2012, p.5.
 Committee for Economic Development, The economic promise of investing in high-quality preschool: Using early education to improve economic growth and the fiscal sustainability of states and the nation, Washington, US, 2006, p.25.
 This is based on the children whose parents are in the lowest income bracket and who are currently not likely to attend ECEC.
 PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Putting a value on early childhood education and care in Australia, PwC, 2014, p.4, http://www.pwc.com.au/industry/government/education/publications/early-childhood-education.htm
 OECD, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, OECD, 2014, http://www.oecd.org/edu/Education-at-a-Glance-2014.pdf, p. 324
 Ibid, p. 327.
 M McDonald, T Moore, R Robinson, Policy Brief No. 26 2014: The future of early childhood education and care services in Australia, Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, 2014.
 P Cummins, D Scott and B Scales, Report on the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry, State of Victoria, Department of Premier and Cabinet, 2012, Melbourne, p.41.
 S Carbone, A Fraser, R Ramburuth and L Nelms at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Breaking Cycles, Building Futures: Promoting inclusion of vulnerable families in antenatal and universal early childhood services: A report on the first three stages of the project, Victorian Government Department of Human Services, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 2004. https://www.eduweb.vic.gov.au/edulibrary/public/beststart/ecs_breaking_cycles_best_start.pdf
 Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Vulnerable children action plan: The department’s plan to implement Victoria’s vulnerable children action strategy, 2013 – 2022, p.10.