By Madeleine Heffernan
Australian students are almost twice as likely to start school without kindergarten or preschool than the OECD average, raising concerns about the effect on academic performance in later years.
The world’s largest study of 15-year-old students found 11.5 per cent of Australian students did not attend pre-primary school or attended for less than a year, compared with the OECD average of 6.2 per cent.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s PISA test found students who had not attended pre-primary school or attended for less than a year “scored lower in reading at the age of 15 than students who had attended for between one and three years, before and after accounting for students’ and schools’ socioeconomic profile”.
While the research does not detail a link between Australian students’ time at preschool and their reading scores, the OECD said there was growing evidence about the importance of high-quality pre-primary education.
Australian research has found a “significant positive association between attendance at preschool programs and year 3 NAPLAN results”. In addition, students who had attended at least one year of pre-school had higher achievement than those who attended less than one year of preschool (for reading achievement) or did not attend at all (for mathematics and science achievement).
Sue Thomson, deputy CEO (research) at the Australian Council for Educational Research – which manages the PISA test for the federal, state and territory governments – said children who started primary school behind their peers did not catch up.
“If kids start school behind they never really catch up and the distance between the ones who do have the pre-primary education and the ones who don’t actually gets bigger as the years go by,” she said. “If kids start behind, they end up behind at years 10 and 11.”
The OECD report said some countries might have lower rates of pre-primary attendance due to longer parental leave, cultures in which infants are cared for in the home, and earlier access to primary education.
Preschool attendance is not compulsory, although the Australian, state and territory governments since 2008 have committed to boosting participation, and some jurisdictions are introducing subsidised preschool programs for all three-year-olds, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The latest official figures showed there were almost 336,000 children aged four or five enrolled in a preschool program last year, up 0.7 per cent. The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged four or five enrolled in a preschool programs jumped by 9.5 per cent to just over 19,500.
The OECD’s report, released on Tuesday evening, said research suggested early education could boost children’s cognitive development and wellbeing, later academic achievement and even adult earnings.
“In addition, early education programs are cost-effective interventions with substantial economic returns to investment. The benefits of attendance at pre-primary education tend to be greater for socioeconomically disadvantaged children,” it said.
PISA tests the reading, writing and mathematics of 15-year-olds across the globe every three years. Australian students recorded their worst results in 2018, and were about a full school year behind where Australians were at the turn of the millennium.
The 2018 test involved about 600,000 15-year-old students in 79 countries and economies.
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Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.