A Summary of our Rapid Review of the evidence behind pre-school for 3-year-old children.
Commissioned by the Royal Commission into Early Childhood Education and Care, South Australia.
The Royal Commission into Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) in South Australia presents an opportunity to propose new solutions to the government on delivering a high-quality early year’s system that is fit for the children of South Australia. Broadly, the Royal Commission is inquiring into:
The extent to which South Australian families are supported in the first 1000 days of a child’s life, focused on opportunities to further leverage early childhood education and care to enable equitable and improved outcomes for South Australian children;
How universal quality preschool programs for 3 and 4-year-old children can be delivered in South Australia, including addressing considerations of accessibility, affordability, quality and how to achieve universality for both age cohorts. Consideration of universal 3-year-old preschool should be undertaken with a view to achieving this, commencing in 2026;
How all families can have access to out of school hours care (OSHC) at both preschool and primary school ages, including considerations of accessibility in all parts of the state, affordability, and quality in public and private settings.
In conducting its inquiry, the Royal Commission has been tasked to hear the voice of parents and caregivers from diverse backgrounds, experts in early childhood development, service providers in the first 1000 days, leaders of early childhood education and care services, relevant unions, and providers of OSHC. Within this broader remit, the University of South Australia was commissioned to (A) undertake a rapid literature review to help inform the Commission’s knowledge of the existing scientific literature with a tight focus on the impact of 3-year-old preschool on developmental and learning outcomes, and (B) to conduct a survey of academic experts in the field to gather insights into what is established (known and not known) regarding ECEC implementation considerations to support child developmental outcomes. Results from the rapid review confirmed the scientific literature into the importance of early child development for later academic success, health and wellbeing. As such, it isn’t surprising that South Australia is considering increasing their investment in ECEC. The intent behind such investment is twofold; it not only serves to support early child development, but also to facilitate increased workforce participation of young parents. Interestingly, although the evidence for the latter is strong (i.e., increased workforce participation) (European Commission 2022), the strength of the evidence for the former (enhancing child development) is not so clear cut, especially when it comes to preschool provision for 3-year-old children.
Ultimately the challenge for policy makers is to understand the right “ingredients” (both inputs and quantity of those inputs) for a universal ECEC system that will support families across the socio-economic spectrum. One key ingredient to consider is the number of hours per week that a child attends ECEC. Evidence from high quality studies is contradictory, with some indicating that simply more hours is better and others suggesting that this is the case for children from challenging home environments but greater hours either has no effect or a negative effect on children from supportive home environments. Of course, pragmatically, parents will have preferences depending on employment flexibility and other care arrangements and these considerations will also influence children’s attendance patterns.
In terms of quality, the literature clearly supports high quality ECEC provision. Aspects of quality include the need for staff-to-child interactions to be positive, kind and caring, with staff proactively seeking to enhance children’s development and learning through a range of pedagogies. Further there is strong evidence for higher staff-to-child ratios having better outcomes, with those ratios being more important for the younger children. Additionally, the research supports the benefits of teachers informed through formal qualifications and ongoing professional development, including a thorough understanding of child development, to inform pedagogy and practice, ongoing program evaluation and development, and meaningful interactions and support of families. Programs with many or all of these elements present demonstrate the strongest and most persistent development outcomes for children.
Engagement and inclusion of parents/caregivers by the ECEC service is another important factor in achieving a holistic approach. A common element of programs evaluated to be impactful on children’s development is the inclusion of parenting support through either playgroup type models where parents are learning and having activities role modelled, or with the embedding of parenting practice support programs. Further, the optimal number of hours per week, assuming a minimum quality standard, will differ depending on the home circumstances of the child, meaning a flexible high quality service system will be required. Aspects of quality should primarily consider delivering services in a way that facilitates a close and positive relationships between the staff, children and parents, where a childsees their ECEC as a safe, fun and affirming learning environment. Any ECEC should engage parents, ideally with role modelling and assistance to facilitate parent’s ability to support their child’s growth, development and learning. Both parents and children are more likely to be engaged when they trust that their ECEC service will provide encouragement and emotional support, thus leadership in the centre/pre-school should foster an inclusive culture supporting all families no matter what their background.
South Australia has a unique opportunity to provide a mix of ECEC services to support children and families. The existing research evidence provides important insights to consider in any expansion and ideally this will be undertaken hand in hand with ongoing monitoring and evaluation to demonstrate the benefits to the community, improve effectiveness, and create an opportunity to share information about what works and what doesn’t as the services expand to scale.
For more information or to read the full report, visit royalcommissionecec.sa.gov.au
Words: Professor Sally Brinkman
Sally’s research through UniSA aims to improve the healthy development and early learning of young children, with a focus on those living in highly disadvantaged communities.
Originally published in Connected Caregiving Autumn 2023