Every parent and community want their children to have the best start in life.

But data collected by the Australian government tells us that around 60,000 children are assessed as developmentally vulnerable when they start school every year. 

By Grade 3 these children are, on average, a year behind their peers on NAPLAN, and by Grade 5 they are two years behind. Around half of these children never catch up. 

Evidence shows that, in turn, these students are less likely to finish school, and are more likely to experience unemployment, and suffer ill-health throughout their lives.

It’s clear too many children in Australia are growing up in conditions that do not enable them to develop the foundational skills and abilities for learning, and many of these children face barriers to getting one of the most important enablers to their learning and development - early education.

At the Front Project, we believe there’s a clear opportunity for government policy to help address this situation, so we looked more closely at how and where these children are missing out, and why they might be assessed as developmentally vulnerable so early in their lives.  

Concerningly, we found that more than 20 percent of our nation’s four and five-year-olds are unable to access high quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) opportunities.

We also found that a family’s postcode makes a major difference. The further away from a city you live, the greater the risk of a child experiencing developmental vulnerability. 

For instance, 46.2 percent of children from very remote areas are assessed as developmentally vulnerable when they reach school, compared to one in five children (20.8 per cent) in major cities.

Further, one in three (33.2 percent) children from the lowest socio-economic communities are developmentally vulnerable, compared to only one in seven (14.9 percent) in the highest.  

Cultural background also makes a difference. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children record double the rates of developmental vulnerability (42.3 percent) compared to non- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (20.6 percent).

Children from a language background other than English (25.3 percent) are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable than children who speak English only (20.8 percent). However, more than 90 percent of children from a language background other than English, who are not proficient in English, are developmentally vulnerable.

The areas hardest hit have what are known as ‘thin markets’ where there are too few ECEC providers, not enough spaces, and a lack of diversity when it comes to delivering early childhood education.

A lack of high quality, affordable ECEC not only means children are left developmentally vulnerable, it also restricts their parents’ ability to return to the workforce, reinforcing a cycle of disadvantage and, because the issue is often geographically focused, impacting communities. 

While there have been some important positive steps from government, including funding to support the establishment of new child care services in rural, regional and remote Australia in the Federal Budget, we believe there is now a clear opportunity for government to do even more to level the playing field when it comes to ECEC. We know how it can be done, and we know how we can help. 

Specifically, three things: 

Firstly, we need to invest in the ECEC workforce to build quality in every community.

Next, we need to provide targeted support for the inclusion of all children and ensure those who would most benefit from access to quality ECEC can access it. This includes conducting a thorough review of the very supports in place to assist children and families experiencing disadvantage to ensure they are still fit for purpose and meeting community needs.

And finally, we need the policy and funding settings to ensure that every Australian child gets two years of preschool education - and more for those who need it the most. 

Action is needed right now to further support Australian children currently missing out on the best start in life, which in turn will nurture our regional, rural, remote and disadvantaged communities, and help create jobs and long-term prosperity for our country.  

This article was originally published on the Daily Telegraph.