Indigenous Australians and Preschool Education: Who Is Attending?

Article excerpt

Introduction

QUALITY PRESCHOOL EDUCATION can have substantial positive effects for the children who attend, easing the transition to school and providing a boost to a child's self-esteem as well as their future scholastic ability (Barnett, 1995, 1998; Buckley, 1996; Ferson, 1997; Hendricks, Echols & Nelson, 1989; Magnuson, Ruhm & Waldfogel, 2005; Masse & Barnett, 2002). In Australia, attendance at preschool is not compulsory and there is often a fee payable by the parent or guardian. This is likely to lead to variation in preschool attendance among eligible Australian children.

There is very little research in Australia on how attendance at preschool varies by the characteristics of the child. Furthermore, the information available is mainly descriptive and, to the author's knowledge at least, there is no research focusing on Indigenous children. The research that is available suggests that the socioeconomic characteristics of the family and household have a strong influence on preschool attendance. For example, in the US, Bainbridge et al. (2005) report lower enrolment in pre-primary education by race (Hispanic children had lower attendance than white non-Hispanic children, who in turn had lower attendance than black children), income and parental education. These differences were found in both descriptive and multivariate analysis.

Public policy also makes a difference. Capizzano, Adams and Sonenstein (2000) found differences in attendance rates by the state where the child lived. Furthermore, Magnuson, Ruhm and Waldfogel (2005) looked at variation in increases in public funding of pre-primary education and found that such increases were the main reason for decreases in the gaps in enrolment between high- and low-income families.

Similar patterns by income and education were reported for Australia by the ABS (2004). That is, for all four-year-olds in 2001, attendance was higher for those who lived in a household in the higher income quintiles and also higher with increased parental education. Indigenous Australians were reported to be less likely to attend preschool; however, the extent of the difference varied by age and remoteness.

This paper discusses evidence on the factors associated with preschool attendance, with particular focus on Indigenous Australians. Indigenous children are less likely to attend preschool, and the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training lists equal access to preschool education for Indigenous Australians as one of the 21 goals for Indigenous education (DEST, 2005a). More specific reasons for studying the factors are:

* Some of the measured benefits to preschool education may be as a result of the type of student who attends. In the absence of longitudinal data, looking at the factors associated with attendance may enable a more thorough understanding of the effects of preschool attendance.

* Under the assumption that preschool education does have an effect on individuals, variation in attendance at preschool will likely lead to variation in outcomes.

* Indigenous Australians are likely to drop out of later secondary school before completion. Such dropout rates may be reduced by a better start to their formal schooling through attendance at quality preschools responsive to their needs. By looking at how the factors associated with attendance vary with Indigenous status, information is gained on why Indigenous students are less likely to attend preschool.

For this paper, preschool is defined as 'educational and developmental programs for children in the year (or, in some jurisdictions, two years) before they begin full-time primary education'. Preschools generally cater to children aged three-five years and are usually open only during school terms between 9am and 3pm (ABS, 2003). In addition to preschool, many children experience other forms of formal or informal care prior to and concurrent with attendance at preschool. …