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Opinion: early-childhood instruction needed to improve TIMSS rankings

The release of the Trends in International Maths and Science Study international rankings for Year 4 and Year 8 has produced a plethora of hand wringing about how badly Australia is doing.

In amidst the claims that the TIMSS data proves school funding makes no difference to educational outcomes and that teachers are to blame, there is also a fundamental feature of the report that thus far has received little attention.

Sue Thomson, the report’s author, mentioned in an ABC interview that Year 4 is too late to intervene in the educational trajectories evident in the data. However, the interview moved on with little further exploration of the idea she had introduced.

Thomson is right; Children who start school behind in maths (and literacy) generally stay behind. Furthermore, it is the children in Australia’s most disadvantaged communities who most often and most consistently start school behind their peers. So it is in the early childhood years that we see the beginning of an educational achievement gap that has proven intractable over decades.

The benefits of early childhood experiences are repeatedly referred to in the TIMSS report. This is because the transformative potential of early childhood programs to contribute to long-term educational outcomes has been substantiated by research and recognised in many countries. In Australia, however, the evidence appears to go unnoticed.

The 2015 report presents data that demonstrates that a child with three-plus years of early learning scored on average about 28 points higher on Year 4 maths tests than a child with just one year, and 46 points higher than a child with none. If the early learning was combined with a rich home learning environment, then the child really hits the jackpot.

The 2015 TIMSS report (at least so far) has not covered how many Australian children had more than three years of early learning. However, the 2011 report did provide data. Of the children tested, just 14 per cent sitting the Year 4 maths tests had more than three years of early learning. Of the 32 countries reporting, Australia had the 23rd lowest percentage of children with significant time in early childhood programs.

Of the eight highest-performing maths countries for Year 4, six reported more than 50 per cent of children attended three or more years of early learning, and the top three countries (Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea) reported more than 70 per cent attended early learning.

In terms of educational outcomes, the horse has well and truly bolted by Year 4.

If the tables are ever going to turn, Australian policymakers will have to follow the examples of countries that have demonstrated a sustained commitment to early learning.

Associate professor Susan Krieg is the early-childhood program co-ordinator at Flinders University.

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