OPINION

Inequality drives deep divide between Australian children

Inequality drives deep divide between Australian children

Access to high-quality early childhood education and care during the preschool years provides a tremendous springboard as children prepare to enter full-time schooling, with developmental benefits that are both considerable and well established.

Yet children facing the greatest disadvantage are the very ones missing out on the support that was ostensibly meant for them.

Under the Early Childhood Education National Partnership Agreement, all Australian children should now be accessing at least 15 hours of preschool each week in the year before full-time school. But our latest report shows this is not the case.

Nearly one in five children are not accessing 15 hours each week.

Inequalities are especially stark when looking across the socio-economic divide, with children in the most disadvantaged areas of Australia 10 times more likely not to be accessing 15 hours of preschool in that critical year.

Children living in these areas are also 16 times more likely to be developmentally vulnerable in their first year of school, highlighting the link between access to early education and school readiness.

The most disadvantaged areas are typically in remote regions of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, areas with a high proportion of Indigenous children who by virtue of location alone face disadvantage.

These children are far less likely to have internet access and generally face higher student to teacher ratios.

Given many of the challenges faced in delivering early learning and care are driven by location, some of the most effective solutions are also likely to be place-based.

Community programs that have overcome locational challenges and achieved positive outcomes offer policymakers powerful case studies about what works.

More broadly, there's a pressing need for greater flexibility in preschool provision, alongside an adequate level of income support for families with young children.

Nearly one in five children under five in Australia are living below the poverty line, with one in nine facing severe poverty.

This means a single parent in severe poverty with a young child under five could face living on less than $370 a week after paying for housing.

This brings into sharp focus the question of adequacy of income support payments and government assistance, and the need to ensure that payments are set at a rate that serves to protect our most vulnerable population.

Strategies that put the best interests of children first inevitably focus on the long-term and the good of the wider community - it is simply good public policy.

Professor Alan Duncan is director of the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre.