2014, Volume 17, Special Issue: Early Childhood Policy

The State of Play in Early Childhood Policy: A Note from Australia

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Full Reference
Press, F. (2014). The State of Play in Early Childhood Policy: A Note from Australia.  NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 17, 11 - 20. 


Invited Country Note

The State of Play in Early Childhood Policy: A Note from Australia

Frances Press
Charles Sturt University, New South Wales



This brief country note on Australian early childhood education and care (ECEC) policy commences with an outline of the types of services that comprise the sector. A brief overview of the history of Australian early childhood education and care follows, including the challenges faced by the sector in the years leading up to the introduction of the Reform Agenda for Early Childhood. The changes instigated by the 2007 Early Childhood Reform Agenda and their significance are then explained and current policy and funding arrangements summarised. The paper concludes with a précis of the opportunities and challenges facing the early years’ sector.

Key words: Policy reform; quality; accreditation; parent involvement. 



At the time of writing Australian early childhood policy is in a state of flux.  A newly elected national government (the Coalition) has indicated that it will slow the pace of reform instigated by the Reform Agenda for Early Childhood introduced by the previous Labor Government (Ley, 2013). However, the nature of future changes is not yet known. To date, the Government has requested the Productivity Commission1 “undertake an inquiry into how child care and early childhood learning can be more flexible, affordable and accessible and responsive to the needs of today’s families and children” (Australian Government Department of Education, 2013) with the final report due in approximately 12 months. Hence, while the following overview is as current as it can be at the time of writing, some aspects of policy may be superseded by the time of publication.


The services that comprise the system

This paper focuses on services within the Australian Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) sector that cater to children who are not yet at school. School entry age in Australia ranges from 4.5 years (when children can commence school) to 6 years (the age of compulsion for all jurisdictions except Tasmania, where it is five years of age) (ACARA 2009). The ECEC sector is made up of a variety of services, including:

Pre-school (sometimes referred to as kindergarten).  Traditionally provided as sessional care and education, pre-school is available to children for one or two years before the commencement of school. Pre-school may run as a morning or afternoon session; or as a short day (usually 6 hours). Stand-alone pre-schools (i.e. those not integrated with a childcare programme) keep the same opening weeks as schools.  Providers of preschool vary.  In some states and territories pre-schools are predominantly provided by departments of education, however they may also be provided by community based agencies. Few pre-school programmes are privately provided, unless they are incorporated into a long day care programme.

Long Day Care (centre based) (sometimes referred to as childcare centres). Full day education and care programmes, often available to children from 6 weeks of age to the commencement of school age.  Long day care services operate for a minimum of 48 weeks of the year, and are open 10-12 hours a day. Long day care centres are provided by for-profit businesses (small and large), community-based associations, non-profit umbrella agencies (such as SDN Children’s Services, KU Children’s services, C & K), social enterprises (e.g. Goodstart), and local government.

Family Day Care (FDC): Home-based education and care often available to children from 6 weeks of age to the commencement of school age.  Family day care educators are affiliated with and supported by a FDC coordination unit. FDC schemes are often provided by local government, community-based organisations, or for-profit businesses.

Mobile Children’s Services: Mobile children’s services provide itinerant services to children and families experiencing social, geographic, cultural or economic isolation. They operate in urban, rural and remote areas of Australia, moving from location to location to provide programmes for children and parents, which may include: advice and support to parents; playgroups; preschool programmes; and adjunct childcare.

Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Services (MACS): MACS are notforprofit community based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific early childhood services that offer a range of programmes to their local community, depending upon need. Services include long day care with at least one additional programme such as outside school-hours care, preschool, or parenting support.

Integrated Child and Family Services: Integrated services offer a range of care and education   programmes in conjunction with additional supports to families including, for example, child health services, family support and early intervention programmes.

Playgroups: Playgroups are informal gatherings for family members, caregivers (including, for instance family day care educators) young children and babies.  They provide a space for adults and children to interact with others. Supported Playgroups are those facilitated by an agency and provide on-site support for those attending the playgroups.


Historical overview

Australia’s federated system of government has had an influence on the nature of early childhood education and care in Australia and its configuration of services as responsibilities for different facets of the ECEC system rest with various levels of national and state / territory governments. In general terms, services deemed to be educational (e.g. preschool) have been State responsibilities and services associated with welfare and workforce (e.g. childcare) have been the responsibility of the Federal Government. Additionally, responsibilities for the formulation and administration of regulation have rested with state/territory governments. However, up until the time of the 2007 Reform Agenda, the Federal Government has taken on the role of accrediting the quality of ECEC services other than preschool. Recent government reforms have attempted to address the fragmentation resulting from such divisions, nevertheless historically, these split arrangements have shaped the system in distinct ways.

The antecedents of Australian Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) rest in the kindergarten movement of the late nineteenth century. At this time, Australian advocates for the establishment of kindergartens frequently sought social and educational reform on a range of fronts. According to Huntsman (2005, p. 10) “a formidable  network of women” looking to establish kindergartens in 19th century Australia, also agitated for “– divorce law reform, votes for women, equal pay for equal work –and for education for the poor …”.  In the quest to establish kindergartens, kindergarten associations were formed in a number of states.  The first, the Kindergarten Union of NSW, typified the objectives of these associations with its aims to establish kindergartens, free of charge, in poor neighbourhoods and to have kindergarten principles adopted into every school in NSW (Brennan 1998).

Kindergarten advocates were not, by and large, supportive of full day programmes for young children, access to kindergartens and nurseries for children under three years of age, or the establishment of any programmes that would support mothers being in paid labour.  Thus, in the early years of the twentieth century, the day nursery movement emerged, looking to provide practical support to women with young children who had to work, often because of widowhood, desertion by their husbands, or their husband’s incapacity to work. The Sydney Day Nursery Association was formed in 1905 and the Victorian Association of Day Nurseries in 1910 (Brennan, 1998). Today, many existing early childhood education and care services are run by non-profit agencies born of these early kindergarten and day nursery movements2.

Until 1940, the provision of kindergartens (sessional care for children 3-5 years) and nurseries (full day care for children from infancy) remained the province of philanthropic organisations.  Governments were, by and large, reluctant to fund such services. A notable exception to this rule was the short lived Woolloomooloo Mother and Baby Welfare Centre established in 1921. This innovative centre, which provided a wide range of child and family services, is cogent to highlight because of its resonance with contemporary trends to integrate child and family services. Established by the NSW Labor Government, it was anticipated that it would be a ‘forerunner ... of many such buildings’.  ‘[D]esigned to meet the needs of the childlife and the mothers of the community’ (Building 1921: 81 cited in Wong & Press, 2013) it was located in a severely disadvantaged suburb of Sydney and housed, among other things, a kindergarten, a day nursery, a teachers’ room, an isolation room for sick children, a medical clinic, a mother and baby clinic, nursery staff living quarters, and a community milk depot (Wong & Press, 2013). The centre however, was not replicated and lost funding when a more conservative government was elected. 

It was not until 1938 that there was significant Federal Government involvement in early childhood education with the provision of funding to establish a demonstration preschool centre in each capital city.  Established and overseen by the Australian Association for Pre-School Child Development3 (AAPSCD), these six ‘Model Child Development Centres’ were known as the Lady Gowrie Child Centres. They were designed as centres for training, demonstration and research. Each provided a kindergarten, medical supervision for children and acted as sites for demonstrating kindergarten methods for teacher training purposes.  The Gowries also promoted the value of kindergarten education to the general public, published materials to support parenting, and actively sought to improve the health of children through promoting good nutrition (Press & Wong, 2013). The AAPSCD, especially through the work of the Gowries, was quite successful in promoting the value of kindergarten, especially to parents. After the Second World War (1939-1945) as Australia’s population expanded, preschool education came to be of greater interest to middle class communities.  During the 1950s and 1960s preschools were eventually expanded by a number of State and Territory governments and were often attached to departments of education. Nevertheless, despite the activities and advocacy of the kindergarten and day nursery movements over many years, a national system of universal early childhood education did not eventuate. 

In 1972 the next major development in the expansion of early childhood education and care occurred with the introduction of the Childcare Act, 1972. This Act, developed under the Federal Government’s capacity to legislate for welfare, enabled the Federal Government to fund the provision of childcare throughout Australia. This intervention was triggered by the demands of the women’s movement for the provision of childcare to support the participation of mothers in the paid labour market, the demands of the manufacturing industry for women’s labour (women were cheaper to employ), and concern for the existing numbers of children left at home unattended (Press & Hayes, 2000).

Over subsequent decades the provision of childcare progressively expanded. Until 1991, government funding for childcare infrastructure and fee subsidies for parents were only directed to non-profit services with a formalised structure for parent involvement. In 1991, the Hawke Labor Government made fee subsidies available to parents using for-profit childcare. This move stimulated private sector investment into the childcare ‘market’ and today for-profit childcare is the major provider of long day care services in Australia.  Importantly, the move to allow the private sector to access fee subsidy for families was accompanied by the introduction of a childcare accreditation system, the Quality Improvement and Accreditation System (QIAS).  In order to have access to fee relief, all childcare centres were required to participate in accreditation, which was designed to ensure the quality of childcare by focusing on the experiences of children and families, not just regulatory inputs such as staffing and space requirements (Press & Hayes, 2000).


Current policy and funding arrangements for ECEC in Australia

As is evident, government policies for Australian ECEC are formulated and administered by Federal and State/Territory governments. Constitutionally, education is primarily the responsibility of the States, hence until relatively recent reforms the provision of preschool education has been a State matter. Childcare, on the other hand, has been in the province of the Federal government. Differing administrative and funding arrangements according to type of service and government jurisdiction, and diverse providers of services (not for profit organisations, local governments, state/ territory departments of education, small and large businesses) have resulted in Australian early childhood education and care being beset by fragmentation (OECD, 2001).

The National Early Childhood Reform Agenda (2007) aimed to address the binary of “education or care” (Rudd & Macklin, 2007, p. 10), to facilitate greater uniformity nationally, and address significant long standing shortcomings the quality and availability of ECEC in Australia. Starting Strong II (OECD 2006) had ranked Australia poorly in expenditure on pre-primary education (3-6 year olds) amongst OECD nations and highlighted the low rates of participation in early childhood programs, particularly for children 3-5 years (OECD 2006). Not surprisingly therefore, the Reform Agenda has sought to provide universal access to a preschool programme for all children in the year before school; and improve the quality of early childhood services through mandating increased numbers of staff to children and higher qualifications for those working in ECEC. For instance, the number of adults to infants (birth to two years) is now 1:4; all staff working with children need an entry level certificate qualification; and a proportion of staff with an early childhood teaching qualification are required in most centres.

Agreements reached through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), have resulted in greater consistency in regulation and associated standards through the adoption of the National Quality Framework. At the national level sits the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). The ACECQA is an independent authority and it guides and resources the implementation of the National Quality Framework. Its work replaces the role of the previous accreditation system.

The Quality Framework applies to long day care, family day care, preschool and outside school hours care services. Under the Framework sits the National Quality Standard (NQS).  The NQS covers seven areas, these being: educational program and practice; children’s health and safety; physical environment; staffing arrangements; relationships with children; collaborative partnerships with families and communities; and leadership and service management (ACECQA, nd). The standard incorporates National Regulations which are enacted and administered by State and Territory governments. In addition, a curriculum framework, Being, Belonging, Becoming: the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), now applies to all early childhood services. This is the first time all early childhood services in Australia have been covered by a common curriculum framework, and its adoption involved complex negotiations across all levels of government (Sumsion, Barnes, Cheeseman, Harrison & Stonehouse 2009).

In addition, there has been a trend toward increasing the provision of integrated child and family services, especially in geographic areas of economic disadvantage. These services draw together a range of programmes for children and families, and usually include early childhood care and education and, or, supported playgroups.


Parental involvement

The involvement of parents in their children’s early education and care has been a long standing principle within Australian early childhood programmes. When childcare services first received Federal funding, many were run by parent-based management committees and services run by local government or sponsor agencies were required to have a parent-based advisory committee. Under the Quality Improvement and Accreditation System introduced in 1994, parent involvement was also a requirement. Today, the National Quality Standard devotes one of its seven “Quality Areas” to Collaborative partnerships with families and communities. The elements of this quality area are reproduced in Table 1 below.


Table 1. Quality Area 6 - Collaborative partnerships with families and communities (ACECQA nd)

Standard 6.1

Respectful and supportive relationships with families are developed and maintained.

Element 6.1.1

There is an effective enrolment and orientation process for families.

Element 6.1.2

Families have opportunities to be involved in the service and contribute to service decisions.

Element 6.1.3

Current information about the service is available to families.

Standard 6.2

Families are supported in their parenting role and their values and beliefs about childrearing are respected.

Element 6.2.1

The expertise of families is recognised and they share in decision making about their child’s learning and wellbeing.

Element 6.2.2

Current information is available to families about community services and resources to support parenting and family wellbeing.



Opportunities and challenges

Since the instigation of the reform agenda, Australia has made considerable progress on a number of fronts designed to improve the quality of care and education for children. National action toward creating a more systemic approach to ECEC provision has been significant and initiatives such as the EYLF have, by and large, been embraced by the early childhood sector. Nevertheless, there are still entrenched difficulties which have proved difficult to shift. There are continuing shortages of appropriately qualified staff (Productivity Commission, 2011). The cost of childcare remains high and prohibitive for a significant number of families (Baker, 2013). The funding requirements for the roll out of 15 hours of preschool per week have had a distorting impact on education and care provision in some jurisdictions, including squeezing out three year olds from preschool attendance to favour the attendance of four year old children. The next few years will be critical in testing the sustainability of reform.



1 The Productivity Commission describes itself as the “Australian Government's independent research and advisory body on a range of economic, social and environmental issues affecting the welfare of Australians”. (www.pc.gov.au).

2 For example, SDN Children’s Services (previously the Sydney Day Nursery and Nursery Schools Association); KU Children’s Services (previously the Kindergarten Union of NSW); and the Crèche and Kindergarten Association (C&K).

3 Today known as Early Childhood Australia (ECA), a national advocacy and representative group for children and ECEC.



Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2009) National report on schooling. Retrieved from http://www.acara.edu.au/reporting/national_report_on_schooling/schools_and_schooling/school_structures.html

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). Quality areas. Retrieved from http://www.acecqa.gov.au/Quality-Areas

Australian Government Department of Education. (2013). Productivity commission inquiry into child care and early childhood learning. Retrieved from http://www.education.gov.au/productivity-commission-inquiry-child-care-and-early-childhood-learning

Baker, D. (2013). Trouble with childcare: affordability, availability and quality. Policy Brief No. 49. The Australia Institute.

Brennan, D. (1998). The politics of Australian child care: Philanthropy to feminism and beyond (revised edition.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huntsman, L. (2005) ‘For the little ones, the best’: SDN Children’s Services 1905-200. SDN Children’s Services.

Ley, S. (2013). Opening speech: Hands up for wellbeing Australian Childcare Alliance and Childcare Queensland Annual conference. Retrieved from  http://sussanley.com/opening-of-hands-up-for-wellbeing-australias-largest-long-day-care-conference

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2001). Country Note (Australia): Thematic review of early childhood education and care. Paris: OECD.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2006) Starting strong II: Early childhood education and care policy. Paris: OECD.

Press, F., & Hayes, A. (2000). OECD thematic review of early childhood education and care policyAustralian Background Report. Canberra.

Press, F. & Wong, S. (2013). A voice for young children: 75 years of early childhood Australia. Canberra: Early Childhood Australia.

Productivity Commission (2011). Early childhood development workforce. Research report, Melbourne: Productivity Commission.

Rudd, K., & Macklin, J. (2007) New directions for early childhood education: Universal access to early learning for 4 year olds. Canberra: Australian Labor Party.

Sumsion, J., Barnes, S., Cheeseman, S, Harrison, L., Kennedy, A., & Stonehouse, A. (2013). Insider perspectives on developing Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 34 (4), 4-13.

Wong, S. & Press, F. (2013). Integrated services in Australian early childhood education and care: what can we learn from our past? Australian Journal of Social Issues 47 (2), 153-173.


About the Author

Dr Frances Press is an Associate Professor in early childhood education at Charles Sturt University. She has a long standing interest in early childhood policy frameworks and their impacts upon practices and pedagogy. She is interested in how government policy can better support high quality early childhood programmes built on strong collaborations with families. She is a member of the Work and Family Roundtable in Australia, which is comprised of 31 researchers with expertise on work, care and family policy with the goal of informing good evidence-based public policy.






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