Australian parents should be sceptical of Labor’s new policy to extend universal access to preschool for 3-year-old children, as the costs and benefits simply fail to add up.
And in a public debate dominated by emotions over facts, we should remind ourselves of some hard facts about preschool in Australia.
Firstly, governments in Australia already provide universal access to one year of preschool for children in the year before starting school.
But most of us would not realise the cost of this policy. The states and territories are spending over $1 billion annually, while the federal government provides top-up funding of more than $400 million.
Consequently, around 92% of children (mostly 4-year-olds) now attend preschool in the year before primary school.
And even though Australia’s spending on preschools is low by international standards — 0.3% of GDP — the OECD has admitted this comparison is very misleading, as Australian children start primary school earlier than many OECD countries. For example, children in Finland do not start school until seven — two years later than ours.
Nonetheless, preschool advocates still cite Australia’s comparatively ‘low’ spending as ammunition to argue for more taxpayer funding.
And Labor is understating the true taxpayer cost of funding two years of universal preschool education. The cost of the policy is reported to be $9.8 billion over 10 years — but at least half of this funding will be used to simply continue the current funding program for 4-year-olds.
The remaining funds will go nowhere near to covering an extra year of preschool for all 3-year-olds. Rather, it will be up to the states and territories to meet the shortfall — and offer up billions of dollars in extra funding — in addition to the $1 billion they already spend on preschool for 4-year-olds.
In addition to this huge cost, the touted benefits of Labor’s policy are not assured either. In fact, it is highly doubtful that most children would benefit from a second year of preschool — contrary to Labor’s emotional rhetoric about ‘investing’ in our children.
Certainly, the early years are fundamental to a child’s development. The evidence suggests that children benefit from preschool in the year before they start primary school. The evidence also suggests that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit the most from preschool.
However, the benefits of more than one year of preschool are likely to be marginal for most children — if existent at all. Any benefits would largely accrue to disadvantaged or vulnerable children, where early intervention is critical.
In fact, evidence from the OECD — used to support the misleading claim that two years of preschool is optimal — suggests that extra years of preschool have little effect on children’s later school performance, once you control for socio-economic status.
In other words, more than one year of preschool has significant benefits only for disadvantaged children.
This may come as a surprise; especially to parents who are continually told that more early education for their children will always be worthwhile.
But most parents already provide a reasonable level of early learning to their children from a very young age.
And if children are receiving this early instruction at home, starting preschool a year earlier is unlikely to make a worthwhile difference.
But this raises an important questionare we assuming that parents are incapable — or less capable than early childhood educators — of teaching their own 3-year-old child?
This would seem an unreasonable assumption. Even early education advocates are quick to admit that parents play a critical role in their children’s early development.
If we want to spend more on early education, the best investment would be to target more funding at disadvantaged and vulnerable children who are at risk of falling behind.
We know that disadvantaged children are still under-represented in preschool — so why don’t governments address this very real problem, rather than an imaginary one?
A possible reason is that it can be extremely hard to fix entrenched disadvantage in Australia; and early intervention programs are often ineffectual.
Ironically, it could prove easier to use taxpayer money to nudge middle-class children into preschool from an even younger age — even if their parents never asked for it.
And the very real risk from Labor’s policy is that we entrench another big-spending program into the federal budget, with marginal benefit for the Australian community overall.
If we truly want governments to be responsible with our taxes, we should be very cautious about yet another money-splashing program that is not appropriately targeted or means-tested.
In the absence of proper targeting, Labor’s policy for all 3-year-olds to attend preschool is simply a costly and pointless extension of the nanny state.
And most parents — the first teachers of our children — do not need a teaching degree to realise this.
Eugenie Joseph is a senior policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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