Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Early Childhood

Risk Burden, Participation in Early Childhood Education and Care, and Child Outcomes

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Early Childhood

Risk Burden, Participation in Early Childhood Education and Care, and Child Outcomes

Article excerpt

Introduction

In 2008, the Australian Commonwealth and state and territory governments signed a National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education (the 'National Partnership Agreement'), which heralded reforms to the provision of early childhood education (COAG, 2009). In Australia, use of formal childcare services has increased over recent decades due to increasing maternal labour force participation (Hayes, Weston, Qu & Gray, 2010; PwC, 2012). This trend, along with greater awareness that early childhood is a critical developmental period (Shonkoff & Marshall, 2000), has led policy-makers to focus on children's experiences in early childhood education and care, with the aim of promoting healthy development and learning through early childhood education programs (Elliott, 2006; Oberklaid, Baird, Blair, Melhuish & Hall, 2013; PwC, 2012; PC, 2014). In the National Partnership Agreement, Australian governments committed to provide every child with access to quality early childhood education for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, in the year before starting full-time schooling (COAG, 2009).

The early childhood sector in Australia is complex, with the provision of preschool programs varying according to provider type (government, community or private), setting (stand alone, schools, childcare centres), aspects of quality, funding and fees (Urbis Social Policy, 2011, pp. 90-92).

The challenge of delivering coordinated services to vulnerable families, given the fragmented nature of early childhood services, was one rationale for a national approach (COAG, 2009).

The positive association between participation in preschool education for children aged three to five years and child outcomes 'is unequivocal', according to the Productivity Commission's inquiry report, Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, which cites international and Australian studies (PC, 2014, pp. 149-158). High-quality early childhood education is considered to promote optimal development for participating children (PC, 2014, p. 151) and to be a potentially effective form of early intervention for developmentally vulnerable children (Harrison, Goldfeld, Metcalfe & Moore, 2012; Magnuson, Ruhm & Waldfogel, 2007; PC, 2014, pp. 154-158; Urbis Social Policy, 2011). Developmental vulnerability can lead to educational underachievement, a potential cause of Australia's stagnating performance in international tests at primary and secondary levels (Zyngier, 2012), and a range of negative lifetime outcomes (e.g. Shonkoff, Richter, van der Gaag & Bhutta, 2012). The importance of high-quality preschool education and care for disadvantaged children in particular is a focus of the National Partnership Agreement (COAG, 2009) and is highlighted in the Productivity Commission's report (PC, 2014).

The literature identifies various risk factors for developmental vulnerability. These include low birth weight (Mallik & Spiker, 2004); poorly educated or unemployed parents (Coley & Lombardi, 2012; Gray & Baxter, 2012; KaIii, 2009; Sameroff, 1998); family poverty (Pordes Bowers, Strelitz, Allen & Donkin, 2012); housing instability (Lewis, 2006; Taylor & Edwards, 2012); overcrowding (Blake, Kellerson & Simic, 2007); unresponsive or insensitive parenting (Linver, Brooks-Gunn & Kohen, 2002; Pettit, Bates & Dodge, 1997; Sameroff, 1998; Smart, Sanson, Baxter, Edwards & Hayes, 2008); unstimulating or impoverished surroundings (Sameroff, 1998); and exposure to conflict or abuse (Koenen, Moffitt, Caspi, Taylor & Purcell, 2003; Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar & Heim, 2009). While exposure to a single risk factor seems to have only a small effect on outcomes, exposure to multiple risk factors--that is, a higher level of risk burden--distinguishes the high-risk child from other children (Fergusson & Horwood, 2003). In Australia in 2015, 22 per cent of children were developmentally vulnerable on at least one domain; this percentage was higher among boys, Indigenous children, those in very remote areas and those in areas of greater socioeconomic disadvantage (Australian Government, 2015). …

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