Early childhood learning can be a circuit breaker for disadvantage, and better prepare children for primary education, but new research suggests kids in the regions might be getting a raw deal.
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A Queensland University of Technology (QUT) study has found early childhood learning had a positive impact on educational and social outcomes in primary school.
However, the study also found a lack of available childcare or preschool available in regional communities has created a two-tier system, where those with access to early learning thrive and those without start school behind their peers.
Charles Sturt University education lecturer Jessamy Davies said this is a problem education experts have known about for years.
"We know it's particularly important for children who live in disadvantaged circumstances - we'd include rural, regional and remote in that understanding of disadvantage.
"Not having access [to early learning] has the potential to exacerbate cycles of disadvantage."
Dubbo is one of the many regional centres where a childcare position can be extremely difficult to find.
Last year, one childcare worker in the city said the difficulty in finding staff stopped them from operating at full capacity while one new mum recommended people apply for waitlists as soon as they are pregnant, such is the competition for spots.
Last year, research conducted by the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University found 35.2% of the Australian population lives in 'childcare deserts'.
A childcare desert is where available places outnumber children under five by 3:1 or more.
In the Dubbo Local Government Area (LGA), 43.7 per cent was found to be in a childcare desert.
In recent months work has begun on two new childcare centres in the city, with one to be built on Myall Street while another on Wheelers Lane is aiming to be open in the coming months.
Longitudinal studies on the impacts of early childhood education have shown its capacity to act as a circuit breaker for disadvantage.
It can offer social and educational advantages that follow someone through their schooling and into the workforce.
Conversely, those who don't receive this early intervention - like those living in regional 'deserts' - may be disadvantaged not only in their early schooling, but for the rest of their lives.
"Not having access has direct impacts on education, and overall development," Ms Davies said.
"By that, we're talking about not just cognitive development, but language, social and emotional development."
Parents, academics and childcare centres are in broad agreement that Australia's early education system is in a poor state.
There needs to be a consistent, embedded, and equitable way early childhood centres are funded - regardless of where they are.- Dr Jessamy Davies
Like the primary education system, low morale and pay are driving people away in droves, leading to widespread staff shortages.
Ms Davies said insecure funding arrangements were also challenging many early-learning centres - particularly not-for-profit centres that rely primarily on government funding.
"Not-for-profit, or community-run centres rely almost exclusively on government funding to operate, so how much is funded, and for how long is entirely dependent on the current government," she said.
"It's really hard for those not for profit centres reliant on government funding to plan ahead to recruit staff, or plan for how many enrolments of children they can take.
"This is a sector-wide issue, but it has particular implications for rural and regional areas. We know when we apply these kinds of disadvantage to rural and regional areas, the problems are exacerbated."
Ms Davies said this problem could only be solved with a targeted and sustained injection of cash into the childcare sector.
"Paying early childhood teachers the same as their primary school teacher peers would help, and would also help improve the status of the profession. This means more teachers will stay in the profession," she said.
"There needs to be a consistent, embedded, and equitable way early childhood centres are funded - regardless of where they are."
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