New research shows migrant and refugee children are being left behind due to gaps in access to early childhood education

Settlement Services International - SSI

New research launching Tuesday, May 21 reveals that multicultural children in Australia are missing out on early childhood education and early intervention programs resulting in them being more likely to be developmentally vulnerable when starting school, with impacts on their school learning and repercussions in later life.

Conducted jointly by non-profit SSI and researchers at Education Futures, University of South Australia (UniSA), Stronger Starts, Brighter Futures ll, reveals that children from culturally diverse backgrounds in Australia are accessing early childhood education at lower rates than their peers and are also more likely than other children to miss out on critical early intervention for children with developmental concerns.

This has been the reality for *Leila*, a mother of three young children, who fled Afghanistan almost a decade ago to secure a safer and brighter future for her kids in Australia.

For years, Leila struggled to access early childhood education and the occupational therapy her children needed, all of whom are on the autism spectrum.

“When my daughter finally started attending [early education], she cried hysterically every day. I was so worried because I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t speak enough English to ask the staff what was happening. The centre wouldn’t provide an interpreter – I felt helpless. I had to withdraw her.”

SSI’s General Manager of Newcomers, Settlement and Integration, Yamamah Agha, said children from migrant and refugee backgrounds need to be able to access culturally responsive early childhood education and early intervention support tailored to their needs.

“The higher rates of developmental vulnerability among multicultural children in the early years risks perpetuating a cycle where those who start school behind, often stay behind with significant impacts for the rest of their lives.”

Professor Sally Brinkman from UniSA said mapping out multicultural children’s engagement in early childhood learning is increasingly important as Australia becomes more culturally diverse.

“Participation in early childhood education is a powerful investment. It doesn’t just benefit the children and their families, but it also creates a chain reaction bringing real and important advantages to Australia’s economy and society.”

The analysis of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) found that overall, 82% of children from culturally diverse backgrounds attended some form of early childhood education in 2021, compared to 90% of other children – a gap that is seen across national cohorts of the AEDC from 2009 to 2021.

Furthermore, the analysis of the AEDC found that children from culturally diverse backgrounds:

  • are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable at school entry than other children, though this gap has been narrowing over time.

  • are half as likely to access early intervention support (i.e., speech therapy, occupational therapy, or disability support) compared to other children.

  • are an increasing proportion of children enrolled in their first year of school, reaching nearly 26% in 2021, up from 17% in 2009.

The research points to ways to improve attendance by children and families from CALD backgrounds in early childhood education through a mix of universal, targeted, and place-based to address non-financial barriers to participation in early learning. These approaches involve governments, policy makers, early education providers and providers of settlement services.

Stronger Starts, Brighter Futures II was launched by SSI and the University of South Australia, as part of an online event and panel discussion in partnership with Early Childhood Australia on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

The report can be found online here on Tuesday, May 21.

Leila’s story:

*Leila* arrived in regional Victoria from Afghanistan with three young children in 2015.

“When I first arrived, I really struggled to enroll my first child into childcare. Without a licence, transportation was hard for me, and completing paperwork was impossible due to my language barrier.”

Eventually, Leila secured a place in early childhood education for her eldest daughter. She was able to attend for about three months because it was free. After that, however, Leila had to withdraw her daughter because the family couldn’t afford it.

The family then moved to Queensland but faced the same challenges accessing early childhood education.

“I didn’t know how to find [early childhood education], or where to even start. I wasn’t even sure if there was a centre near my house.”

“When my daughter finally started attending [early childhood education], she cried hysterically every day. I was so worried because I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t speak enough English to ask the staff what was happening. The centre wouldn’t provide an interpreter – I felt helpless. I had to withdraw her.”

Leila noticed the positive impact that just three months of early education had on her eldest child, who is now in primary school, and she wanted the same benefits for her two youngest.

Leila has faced additional complexities as all three of her children are on the autism spectrum. For years, she struggled to access the occupational therapy services they required.

“My oldest child was struggling when she started school without any therapist support, and it was so hard for her. She feels very isolated, and it was heartbreaking to see her like this.”

Leila and her children were connected to SSI’s delivery of Community Hubs Australia* in Queensland, which have supported the family over the last three years.

The Hubs have helped get her children diagnosed and connected with culturally responsive therapists that also speak Leila’s language. They have also facilitated access to kindergarten, social classes, supported playgroups, and schools.

* Some personal details changed to protect identity.

* Community Hubs Australia is an example of a targeted way to reach refugee and migrant families to help them access early learning and, where needed, early intervention support for their children.

/Public Release.