Early childhood education has been on the international agenda for some years. During 2000 the OECD undertook a thematic review of early childhood education and care policy. Twelve OECD countries participated in order to promote improved policy-making in early childhood education and care (see OECD 1998, http://www.oecd.org/els/ecec/). The background reports (for Australia see Press & Hayes, 2000) produced by each participating country provided a rigorous analysis of country-specific contexts and outcomes for young children. The comparative report (see Starting Strong: Early Childhood Education & Care, 2001; www.oecd.org) asks many questions of participating countries, and recommends policy directions for the overall improvement of early childhood education across the OECD. It is timely that the early childhood profession in Australia be poised and informed to shape any forthcoming policy development. This paper reviews the research literature to determine what evidence is available to the field to support arguments for maintaining early childhood education's position on the international agenda and raising its status as an important area of education. Three areas are examined: the increasing participation rate of children in early childhood services, a cost benefit analysis of early childhood education, and research evidence from neuroscience.
An increasing participation rate
At the international level, we have seen a steady increase in the participation rate of young children in early childhood services. Theis, Bautier and Simes (2000) document key European educational data, noting that, although pre-primary education is an option in all European Union countries (except Luxemborg), the participation rate for four-year-olds in educational settings with a trained teacher, was `50per cent in 1997, except in Finland, where it was 36per cent. Over 90per cent of children of this age already go to school in Belgium, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The rate is over 90per cent even for three-year-olds in Belgium, France, and Italy. In the EU, French toddlers, from the age of two, are the youngest to start pre-primary (years prior to school)' (p. 2). The authors note that the participation rate has increased steadily over the past 20 years in all countries except Ireland, which has remained stable. They argue that these trends demonstrate recognition of the importance of early childhood education, and state that early childhood education `is tending to become more professional by defining objectives, programmes, assessment methods and specific teaching approaches' (p. 2).
In Australia, 368,110 children under the age of six attend some form of early childhood service (Press & Hayes, 2000). The proportion of children using child care services rose from 14.6 per cent between 1995 and 1996 to 16 per cent in the 1997 to 1998 period (Press & Hayes, 2000). Access to preschool programs across Australia is reported to be high, with the highest figure cited as 96.3 per cent of all children (Press and Hayes, 2000). The Australian Education Union (Kronemann, 1998) found in its review of preschool education in Australia that the 1996 ABS Child Care Survey figures showed `that 118,300 4-year-olds attended preschools while 36,100 children attended Long Day Care, 9600 attended Family Day Care and 4400 attended occasional care' (Kronemann, 1998, p. 7). However, when the period is extended to children aged three, the percentage of children using centre-based programs other than day care, play groups, or home-based structures is approximately 28 per cent (compared with 100 per cent for France, 98 per cent for Belgium, 95 per cent for Italy) (OECD, 2000). The differences between states and territories has been considered by deLemos (1999), who calculated that:
... once allowance has been made for four-year-olds who are already in full-time schooling, and the preschool enrolments in the year prior to entry to school adjusted to allow for the three-year-olds included in the preschool enrolment figures, effective educational provision for four-year-olds in NSW is in fact higher than in the other states. …