Pre-school education — the year before year one — is not compulsory, but in 2012, the Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority set a new national standard. It called for pre-schoolers to have at least 15 hours a week of education, for 40 weeks a year. Mitchell Institute reported that while nearly all children in Australia were enrolled for pre-school, only two-thirds got the recommended number of hours.

One of the report’s authors, Bronwyn Hinz, said those children were missing out.

“The benefit deriving from 18 months of quality pre-school is similar to that gained from six years of primary school,” she said.

The report also found many early childhood facilities were not meeting the education levels set by the national standard.

“So far, three-quarters of services have been assessed, but a quarter still haven’t been assessed,” she said.

“Of those that have been assessed, one-third were not meeting the national standards.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but we haven’t provided enough support to those services, especially those catering for kids with greater needs.”

Learning gap between rich and poor ‘widening’

The study also found the learning gap between children from the richest and poorest sectors of the community was widening.

The report’s authors have called for the Government to make further changes to pre-school beyond the national standard benchmarks set four years ago — including making it compulsory.

“[And] ramping up quality across the system, so that every child experiences positive play-based learning,” Ms Hinz said.

“That all services meet or exceed the national quality standard by mid next year. We’d also like to invest scaling up of evidence-based, high-intensity programs for most vulnerable children.

“We’d like a national data strategy that established the information infrastructure needed to drive policy and practice improvement.

“And finally, a national campaign to highlight just how important early education is for kids.”

Educators ‘too lowly paid’

The chief executive officer of the Early Learning Association of Australia, Shane Lucas, welcomed the findings, saying early childhood teachers needed more support to implement the national standard.

“There’s certainly the case still that a lot of educators in our sector are too lowly paid,” he said.

“We need to have a look at how we resource and professionalise that workforce over time.

“That said, there’s been a significant increase in the support and professional development available to educators in our sector and I think, like much of it, they are on a continuous improvement curve.”

But he said the assessment of early education facilities was too stringent, and the way the report considered aspects of the assessment process was “not quite accurate”.

“It’s essentially conflated services that are rated as working towards the national standard, as not meeting that standard,” he said.

“‘Working towards’ means a culture of continuous improvement and there are many services that have received that rating that we believe are providing an excellent quality education service.”

A spokeswoman from the Australian Children’s Education and Quality Authority said it had seen the report, and that it continually worked to promote the importance of childhood education and care within the community.