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Opinion: Mitchell Institute got 3-year-old preschool right

Last week, the Mitchell Institute released a report, Two years are better than one, highlighting how earlier engagement in learning drives better educational outcomes for children. While this local evidence and report are compelling, this is not new news. Australia continues to fall behind the rest of the developed world in educational outcomes and participation rates for education of 3-ear-olds.

Tomorrow’s economy will require new skills that our current education system is not delivering. As a nation, we need to build and invest in an education system that sets up young children for a prosperous adult life. Evidence irrefutably shows two years of quality early learning is critical for building the foundational skills that inform children’s social and emotional development and their capacity to learn in school. Between birth and age 5, children’s brains evolve at an astounding rate, with 90 per cent of brain development occurring during that time.

As one of Victoria’s largest early-years managers, non-profit Early Childhood Management Services (ECMS) is privileged to educate thousands of children each week in our 62 kindergartens and 11 early-learning centres across Melbourne. In 3-year-old kindergarten and equivalent programs offered in early learning and care centres, educators focus on the foundational domains of social and emotional development through intentional play-based learning that reflects each child’s developmental stages. It is not about teaching children to read and write.

At age 3, children have insatiable appetites for learning. Their brains are wired and ready to explore and research their world. Early-learning programs for 3-year-olds support children’s capacity to separate from their families, to make friends and socialise, and to make sense of their community and surroundings. They start learning who they are in a wider world and they’re free to do so in an environment that is safe, child-focused and family-centred.

Our first-hand experience tells us that one year of early learning is not enough. After opening a kindergarten for 250 4-year-old children on a school site in Melbourne’s outer west in 2014, we quickly learned that too many children were starting school with undiagnosed developmental vulnerabilities. In partnership with the primary-school teachers, we identified a need to do more to engage those children and families in education earlier. Many children in this growth area are now accessing two years of kindergarten before school. Not only are all children benefiting from more access to education, but also we are able to intervene earlier and provide additional support to children who need extra help to prepare for their primary-school education.

Two-thirds of Victorian families already recognise the value of two years of early learning and are paying out of their own pockets to access short sessions of education programs for 3-year-old. About 1 million Australian families are accessing quality early learning and care services for zero to 5-year-olds every day. The demand is clearly there. But what happens if you can’t afford it?

The children who may fall through the cracks because they’re in a disadvantaged or vulnerable position – or worse, at harm’s risk – are the ones who are set to gain the most from quality early learning. Making 3-year-old’s education an entitlement for all children – just like 4-year-old kindergarten and school is – will provide those children with the opportunity to redefine their future. It’s time to get on with realising the potential of young Australian children with a sustainable early-learning system that provides at least two guaranteed years of early education for every child and family. The longer we wait, the more 3-year-olds miss out.

Photo: ECMS

Photo: ECMS

Bernie Nott is the chief executive of Early Childhood Management Services.

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