Early childhood education and care programs assist parents with their caring responsibilities. These programs can support the economic and social participation of parents, while helping to ease the transition to full-time school (Warren et al. 2016).

In Australia, early childhood education and care services may be provided by government and non-government organisations. They may be formal or informal.

Formal and informal care

Childcare can be categorised as formal or informal.

Formal care: The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines formal childcare as regulated care away from the child’s home, including:

  • outside school hours care
  • centre-based day care
  • family day care (ABS 2017).

Preschool was once considered a type of formal care, however since 2005 the definition of formal care has excluded preschool. Preschool data is collected separately from child care data and is discussed later on this page.

Informal care: The ABS defines informal care as non-regulated care, paid or unpaid. Informal care may be provided by:

  • grandparents
  • other relatives (including siblings and a parent living elsewhere)
  • other people (including friends, babysitters and nannies)
  • other child minding services (for example a crèche) (ABS 2017). 

How many children are in childcare?

In 2017, formal or informal early childhood education and care was a usual form of care for 49% (or 2.0 million) of children aged 0–12 (up from 48% in 2014). Patterns of formal and informal care use varied by age (Figure 1).

  • Children less than 1 year of age were more likely to attend informal types of care (23%) than formal types (12%). The same was true of children aged 6–8 (informal 33%, formal 22%) and 9–12 (informal 31%, formal 9.6%).
  • Children aged 2, 3, and 4 years were more likely to attend formal types of care (58%, 58%, 45% respectively) than informal types (35%, 33%, and 30% respectively).
  • The highest level of overall care attendance was among 2- and 3-year-olds (ABS 2018).

This horizontal bar chart shows the use of formal and informal care types for children aged 0–12 years. Informal care was more likely to be attended than formal care for children aged under 1 year (formal: 12.4%, informal: 22.9%), 5 years (formal: 28.0%, informal: 30.9%), 6–8 years (formal: 22.1%, informal: 32.7%), and 9–12 years (formal: 9.6%, informal: 31.3%). Formal care was more likely to be attended than informal care for children aged 1 year (formal: 41.9%, informal: 37.4%), 2 years (formal: 58.3%, informal: 34.6%), 3 years (formal: 58.1%, informal: 33.1%), and 4 years (formal: 44.6%, informal: 29.8%).


Most children have some exposure to formal, non-parental care and/or early learning before starting school (ABS 2018).

Between 1999 and 2017, the proportion of children aged 0–11 attending formal care increased from 17% to 28% and the proportion in informal care decreased from 37% to 29% (ABS 2018) (Figure 2).

Long day care continues to be the most attended type of formal care for children aged 0–4. The proportion of this cohort attending long day care increased from 18% in 1999 to 35% in 2017 (ABS 2018).

For children aged 5–11, the increase in formal care was driven by an increase in children using before and after school care, up from 8% in 1999 to 15% in 2017 (ABS 2018) (Figure 2).

This line chart shows the proportion of children aged 0–11 years who used formal and informal care between 1999 and 2017. For 0–4 year olds formal care increased (1999: 27.0%, 2017: 42.0%), while informal care decreased (1999: 43.0%, 2017: 29.0%). For 5–11 year olds, formal care increased (1999: 10.0%, 2017: 18.0%), while informal care fluctuated with an overall decrease (1999: 33.0%, 2017: 28.0%). For 0–11 year olds, formal care increased (1999: 17.0%, 2017: 28.0%), while informal care decreased (1999: 37.0%, 2017: 29.0%).

Family characteristics and care type

According to the Childhood Education and Care Survey (ABS 2018), of children aged 0–12 in 2017:

  • children from couple families were more likely to attend formal care (28%) than children from one-parent families (24%), and less likely to attend informal care (29% and 45%, respectively). Children from one-parent families were more likely to attend a combination of formal and informal care types (12%) than children from couple families (9%)
  • 60% of children from couple families where both parents were employed usually attended care. Among them, 38% used informal care and 35% used formal care
  • 75% of children from one-parent families where the parent was employed usually attended care. Of these, 61% were in informal care, while 34% were in formal care
  • grandparents were the most common source of childcare for couple families (22%). For one-parent families, grandparents and the non-resident parent were an equal source of childcare (both 20%)
  • 52% of children from couple families and 43% from one-parent families did not usually attend care (ABS 2018).

Preschool participation

Preschool programs aim to meet the learning needs of young children through play-based activities (DET 2018). These programs are generally provided by preschools or centre-based day care services (formerly long day care) in the years before children enter full-time school (Warren et al. 2016). Preschool participation is not compulsory and age entry requirements vary across states and territories (ABS 2019c). Preschool subsidies are available in all states and territories (DET 2019).

Preschool and centre-based day care

A preschool program can be offered by a preschool or a centre-based day care service.

According to the ABS (2014), preschools deliver a structured educational program to children before they start school. The preschool program can be delivered from a stand-alone facility or the preschool may be integrated or co-located within a school. Preschools can be operated by government or non-government entities.

Centre-based day care services provide childcare to children aged 0–5. Services may include delivery of a preschool program by a qualified teacher. Like preschools, centre-based day care can be offered from a stand-alone facility or be co-located within a school. Centre-based day care can also be operated by for-profit and not-for-profit organisations.

Since 2008, the Australian Government has provided funding to assist states and territories to increase preschool participation through the National Partnership Agreements on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education (Warren et al. 2016). The initiative aims to provide universal access to quality preschool programs for all children in the year before full-time school for 600 hours per year.

In 2018, nearly 342,500 children aged 4–5 were enrolled in a preschool program, an increase from 339,000 in 2017 (ABS 2019b) (Figure 3). More children were enrolled in a preschool program through a centre-based day care service (50%) than a preschool (42%) (ABS 2019b).

Of children aged 4–5 and enrolled in a preschool program:

  • around 275,000 were aged 4 and 68,000 aged 5, representing 86% of all children aged 4 and 21% of all children aged 5
  • more than 18,000 were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian children (representing 85% of Indigenous 4-year-olds and 19% of Indigenous 5-year-olds). This number is around 5% higher than in 2017 (ABS 2019b)
  • most children (95%) were enrolled for 15 hours per week or more
  • about half of children (51%) were enrolled in a program that charged between $1 and $4 per hour; around 1 in 5 (22%) in a free program (ABS 2019b). 

This horizontal bar chart shows the proportion of 4- and 5-year-olds enrolled in a preschool program by demographic factors in 2018. Proportions by sex: males 4 years 86.7%, 5 years 23.3%; females 4 years 85.8%, 5 years 18.5%. Proportions by Indigenous status: Indigenous 4 years 85.3%, 5 years 18.8%; non-Indigenous 4 years 83.3%, 5 years 20.8%. Proportions by remoteness area: Major cities 4 years 86.1%, 5 years 19.9%; Inner regional 4 years 83.8%, 5 years 29.5%; Outer regional 4 years 86.2%, 5 years 19.6%; Remote 4 years: 91.4%, 5 years 11.7%; Very remote 4 years 78.8%, 5 years 8.0%. Proportions by socioeconomic area: Lowest 4 years 81.8%, 5 years 19.7%; Highest 4 years 87.1%, 5 years 23.1%.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on early childhood education and care, see:


ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2014. Nature of preschool program delivery by state and territory. Viewed 19 February 2019.

ABS 2017. Childhood Education and Care Survey. Viewed 18 February 2019.

ABS 2018. Childhood education and care, Australia, June 2017. ABS cat. no. 4402.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019a. Microdata: Preschool education, Australia, 2018. ABS cat. no: 4240.0.55.003. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019b. Preschool education, Australia, 2018. ABS cat. no: 4240.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019c. Preschool education: explanatory notes. Viewed 19 February 2019,

DET (Department of Education and Training) 2018. National report: National partnership agreement on universal access to early childhood education—2016 and 17. Canberra: DET.

DET 2019. The new child care package. Viewed 25 February 2019.

Warren D, O’Connor M, Smart D & Edwards B 2016. A critical review of the early childhood literature. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.