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Quality closes gap for disadvantaged children: study

Decades of research have shown that children’s experiences before starting school are crucial foundations for learning and behaviour across life. During the preschool years, children spend a large proportion of their time in the family home and increasingly in the non-parental childcare environment.

Access to high-quality childcare may have an important role in promoting the development of children and supporting better school readiness. Children who start school with a strong vocabulary, positive social skills and the ability to pay attention and regulate their emotions are better ready to take advantage of the opportunities formal education offers. Formal childcare exposes children to educational resources and social interactions with same-age peers, and may help them learn skills and behaviours that help them succeed in school.

Not all children have an equal opportunity to participate in high-quality childcare. Concerns have been raised that childcare may contribute to the widening of developmental inequalities between the richest and poorest children in our society, as more higher-income parents are able to afford quality. Unfortunately, the available research suggests that children from lower-income families are less likely to have formal childcare arrangements and when they do, they remain more likely to experience poorer quality care than those from higher income families, yet it is the poorest who are believed to have the most to gain.

In research funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, and published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, we examined whether higher quality childcare was associated with better cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes at school entry for children from lower-income families, compared with higher-income families. Our analysis showed that:

  • Children from lower-income families experiencing poorer quality of carer-child relationships had a 56 per cent higher risk of knowing fewer words at school entry than their higher income peers. However, when lower-income children experienced higher-quality relationships in childcare there was no increased risk;
  • Children from lower-income families experiencing lower-quality childcare were twice as likely to have teacher-reported problem behaviours at school entry as their higher-income peers; however, when lower-income children experienced higher quality care there was no increased risk of these behavioural difficulties.

As these two examples show, we found that when lower-income children had high-quality childcare, their outcomes did not differ from children in high-income families.

In 2009, the Council of Australian Governments established the first National Early Childhood Development Strategy. Key goals of the strategy are to reduce inequalities in outcomes between socioeconomic groups and to build stronger evidence regarding how early childhood programs and services contribute to children’s healthy development. Results from this study suggest that experience of better quality relationships in childcare may be particularly important for children living in families with less income.

The 2015 federal Budget has focused on childcare investment for working parents with little consideration of the implications this may have for children’s development. For example, cutting subsidies to families with a stay-at-home parent with a household income over $65,000 may have implications for children, who may not be able to attend high-quality childcare due to cost barriers.

Angela Gialamas is a PhD student in the School of Population Health at the University of Adelaide. John Lynch is an epidemiologist and professor of public health in the School of Population Health at the University of Adelaide.

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