Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre principal fellow associate Rebecca Cassells said children living in disadvantaged areas were 10 times more likely not to access the 15 hours of weekly preschool education they were entitled to despite financial support from the federal government. The government recently extended its universal access program to 2021 at an additional cost of $452 million.
“Universal access to early learning was meant to be available to everybody but disadvantaged areas – those with low socioeconomic backgrounds – are not getting access,” she said, adding inequality was worsening.
For instance, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Western Australia were 19.3 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children.
The Council of Australian Governments in 2009 launched a national strategy for early childhood development, which included the aim that “by 2020 all children have the best start in life to create a better future”.
“When we’re looking at the call by COAG in 2009 for every child to be out of poverty by 2020 … well it’s now 2020 and we are not even close,” Ms Cassells said.
The child poverty rate is calculated by Curtin based on the share of children who live in households with 50 per cent or less of the median household income.
Ms Cassells said the poor performance in states reaping record revenues from the mining sector showed a great divide between the macro-economy and the reality on the ground where higher housing costs were increasing poverty rates.
“On the face of it, the states do well with GDP growth but it doesn’t necessarily improve for everyone,” she said.
There are some signs of improvement, with WA showing the biggest rise in the number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children accessing preschool between 2018 and 2019. However, a significant gap remains, with only 50 per cent of Indigenous children getting 15 hours or more of preschool a week compared with 70 per cent of non-Indigenous children.
“We are only spending 0.6 per cent of GDP on early learning. It’s a very small proportion of what we are capable of,” Ms Cassells said.
‘When we’re looking at the call by COAG in 2009 for every child to be out of poverty by 2020 … well it’s now 2020 and we are not even close.’
Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre principal fellow associate Rebecca Cassells
The Closing the Gap 2020 report found a target to enrol 95 per cent of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four year olds in early childhood education by 2025 was “on track”, with 86.4 per cent enrolled in 2018. But several critical targets for 2018, including halving the child mortality rate and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children’s reading, writing and maths skills, were not achieved.
Curtin found the cost of childcare was contributing to poverty, with the rate rising 0.6 per cent when these expenses were accounted for in the family budget. The federal government is under pressure for more affordable childcare from a growing group of researchers, parent lobby groups and think-tanks including the Australian National University, Grattan Institute and The Parenthood.
The most disadvantaged areas across the country for early learning were remote or very remote areas, largely across WA and the Northern Territory, as well as Elizabeth in Adelaide. Typically, these areas have a high proportion of Indigenous children.
In WA, the most disadvantaged area was Halls Creek, followed by Derby-West Kimberley. The mining region of South Hedland also made the list. In Queensland, the worst performers were Carpentaria, the Torres Strait Islands and Rockhampton City.
The areas doing best for early learning in Victoria were South Yarra (West), Elsternwick, Ivanhoe East/Eaglemont, Sandringham/Black Rock and Vermont South. Disadvantaged areas on the same measure include Morwell, Campbellfield/Coolaroo, Robinvale, St Albans North and Mooroopna.
In NSW, the 10 most advantaged areas for early learning were all relatively near Sydney, including Terrey Hills/Duffys Forest, Wamberal/Forresters Beach, Manly/Fairlight, West Pennant Hills and Dover Heights. The most disadvantaged were largely remote, very remote and outer regional locations except for Bidwill/Hebersham/Emerton within Sydney. The worst performers were the far west, Coonamble and Bourke/Brewarrina.
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Jennifer Duke is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.