The link between quality early learning and Australia’s future prosperity

Wendy McCarthy's picture

We have an inequality problem in this country that starts when children are born. Wendy McCarthy makes a compelling case for making quality early learning accessible to all children.

A revolution is happening in other countries where investment in early childhood education is seen as the most effective way to drive future well-being, growth and prosperity, and Australia is being left behind.

We have an inequality problem in this country that starts when children are born – and that gap between rich and poor is growing.

By age four, children from lower socio-economic and educational backgrounds hear 19 million fewer words than children with more educated parents. This matters because by age five, a child’s vocabulary will predict their educational success and outcomes at age 30.

One in five children are developmentally vulnerable by the time they start school, and double that number – two in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are vulnerable, according to a national index called the Australian Early Development Census.[i]

The best way to stop generations of children continuing down a path of disadvantage is to get in early while their brain architecture is developing and set firm foundations for learning.

There are economists, like Nobel laureate James Heckman, whose studies show that the most cost effective investment we can make in education and training is in the earliest years.[ii] This is when you can really make a difference. This is when children learn the social and emotional skills they need to lead productive lives.

Australian studies show that  children who attend a high quality early childhood program in the year before school are up to 40% ahead of their peers by the time they reach year three.[iii]

Longitudinal studies in the UK found that children who attended quality early learning had higher grades at school up to 13 years later, were better able to manage their behaviour and had lower levels of hyperactivity[iv]. The longer they spent in pre-school and the higher the quality, the better the grades, and the more likely children were to continue on an academic pathway.

A PWC report released in 2015 found that ensuring all early childhood centres met or exceeded the quality standards would add $10.3 billion to our GDP. And if we could ensure that all children who are developmentally vulnerable attended quality early learning, this would add $13.3billion.[v]

James Heckman says, ‘Early education prevents achievement gaps, it boosts school achievement, presents better health, outcomes improves our workforce, increases productivity and reduces the need for costly social spending,’[vi] so what's not to like about investment in early learning?

When we hear that the government is considering injecting another three billion dollars into childcare and early learning, we should consider the national benefits. These go beyond cost relief for parents and helping parents return to work. The biggest benefits will be in the greater number of well adjusted, productive, employable young future adults.

The UK and New Zealand are way ahead of us in providing free early learning for all three and four years olds. They understand that investing in our children today will create a more prosperous future for all of us.


Wendy McCarthy is a company director, entrepreneur, mentor, change agent, consultant, teacher and author. She launched the Early Learning Everyone Benefits campaign in May and is the Deputy Chair of Good Start Early Learning.



Mens Sana In Corpore Sano.

Perhaps it's a given but in the socio-economic context, it seems reasonable to think that other things that contribute to health, in its broadest sense, would need to advance in parallel with early learning. An obvious example is that 'brain architecture' will not develop optimally with poor nutrition.