Child learning and development

Why is learning and development important?

Children’s learning and development in the early years is integral to their wellbeing, and in the longer term impacts their job prospects, and participation in and connection with the wider community.

For most children, the home is the main influence on child language and cognitive development in the early years (Yu & Daraganova 2015). Starting to read regularly with children during this time stimulates brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships. This, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills (Council on Early Childhood 2014).

Preschool programs can help children prepare for starting school by developing learning-related skills, such as the ability to:

  • express thoughts
  • adapt appropriate behaviours
  • control impulsivity
  • show curiosity
  • retain concentration
  • develop social competence (Melhuish 2012).

Starting school is a key milestone in a child’s life, requiring a significant adjustment to a new environment. Research has found that children developmentally vulnerable on school entry, were more likely to perform poorly on literacy and numeracy tests later in their schooling (AEDC 2014).

Schooling is important for children to develop the necessary skills for learning and educational attainment, as well as social skills such as friendship building, teamwork, communication and healthy self-esteem.

Attendance patterns have been found to be established early in school life, and differences in attendance tend to be carried into, and become greater in secondary school (Hancock et al. 2013).

Literacy and numeracy form part of the cornerstone of formal education for young Australians (MCEETYA 2008). They are fundamental building blocks for children’s educational achievement, their lives outside school and engagement with society, and their future employment prospects.

Governance supporting child learning and development

All Australian education ministers are members of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Education Council—the principal forum for developing national priorities and strategies for the early childhood and education sector, schooling as well as higher education (Education Council 2014).

Early childhood, education and care

Early childhood, education and care (ECEC) services in Australia comprise child care and preschool services.

Child care services provide education and care services to children aged 0–12, and include:

  • long day care
  • family day care
  • outside school hours’ care
  • occasional care
  • other care, including services supporting children with additional needs or in particular situations, or 3-year-old preschool which does not meet the preschool service definition (as provided immediately below), mobile services, playschools and nannies.

Preschool services deliver a preschool program (also known as kindergarten in some jurisdictions). Preschool programs are:

  • structured and play-based learning programs
  • delivered by a qualified teacher
  • aimed at children in the year or 2 before they start full- time schooling.

Responsibility for the ECEC is shared by the Australian Government, state and territory governments and, in some cases, local government (SCRGSP 2019a).

Australian Government responsibilities

The Australian Government is responsible for paying the Child Care Subsidy (formerly the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate) to eligible families, and providing funding to:

  • state and territory governments for early childhood education
  • support the regulation, assessment and quality improvement for ECEC under the National Quality Framework (NQF).

The Australian Government also provides operational and capital funding to some ECEC providers (SCRGSP 2019a).

State and territory responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities of state and territory governments vary across jurisdictions but mainly include funding and/or providing preschool services and, in some cases, providing funding to child care services. They also provide funding to support activities under the NQF.

State and territory governments are responsible for regulating approved services and licensing and/or registering child care services not yet approved under the NQF.

They also implement strategies to improve the quality of ECEC programs, and provide curriculum, information, support, advice, and training and development to ECEC providers (SCRGSP 2019a).

Local government responsibilities

Local governments also plan, fund and deliver ECEC (SCRGSP 2019a).

Schooling in Australia

School education is compulsory for all children across Australia, although the child age entry requirements vary by jurisdiction (SCRGSP 2019b). In Australia, there are 2 main types of schools—primary and secondary—differentiated by the level of education they provide.

Primary schools provide education from the first year of formal school—called Foundation in the Australian Curriculum. Primary school education extends to Year 6 (Year 7 in South Australia).

Secondary schools provide education from the end of primary school to Year 12 (SCRGSP 2019b). From Term 1, 2022, the South Australian public education system will change, and Year 7 public school students will be taught in high school (SA Department of Education 2019).

Schools can be broadly categorised into 3 sectors:

  • government schools, owned and managed by state and territory governments
  • Catholic schools
  • independent schools.

The latter 2 are owned and managed by non-government establishments.

Responsibility for primary schooling is shared by the Australian Government, state and territory governments. The Australian Government provides funding for schools, government and non-government (Department of Education 2019a). These levels of government work together to progress and implement national education policy priorities, such as: a national curriculum; national statistics and reporting; national testing; and, teaching standards (PM&C 2014).

Responsibility for delivering and regulating schooling

Each state and territory government delivers and regulates schooling in its jurisdiction. They also provide most of the school education funding in their jurisdiction. They register schools, regulate school activities and are directly responsible for the administration of government schools.

Non-government schools operate under conditions determined by state and territory government registration authorities (SCRGSP 2019b).

Responsibility for delivering the Australian Curriculum

State, territory and non-government education authorities are responsible for delivering the Australian Curriculum, including decisions about implementation timeframes, classroom practices and resources that complement teaching of the curriculum (Department of Education 2018).

National education strategies and initiatives for children

Early Childhood, Education and Care

A key COAG objective under the National Partnership on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education is to ensure a quality preschool program (also referred to as kindergarten in some states) is available for all children in the year before full-time school (Department of Education 2019b).

Universal access to quality preschool is supported by the NQF. Under this framework, preschool services must have an early childhood teacher in attendance, with specific requirements varying depending on the size of the service (Department of Education 2019b). The Early Years Workforce Strategy provides an agreed vision and long-term framework for the early childhood education and child care workforce (Department of Education, 2017).


In 2008, Australian education ministers agreed, within the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, for Australian schools to promote equity and excellence, and for all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens (MCEETYA 2008).

These common goals underpin the strategic reforms outlined in the COAG National School Reform Agreement which are for Australian schooling to give a high quality and equitable education to all students. The agreement includes these outcomes:

  • academic achievement improves for all students, including priority equity cohorts
  • all students are engaged in their schooling
  • students gain the skills they need to transition to further study and/or work and life success (COAG 2018).

The Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia is the basis for reporting by Australian education ministers on performance in accordance with the Melbourne Declaration (ACARA 2015). It specifies the annual assessment and reporting cycle for the National Program, which includes the National Assessment Program–literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests (Table 1).

Australia’s national curriculum gives schools, teachers, parents, students, and the community a clear understanding of what students should learn, regardless of where they live or what school system they are in (Department of Education 2018).

Table 1: National strategies and initiatives relevant to snapshots

Topic area


Early years

National Partnership on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education 2018–2019—This agreement is under review with a final report to the Education Council expected in 2020.

National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care—This framework is under review during 2019–2020.

Early Years Learning Framework

My Time, Our Place: Framework for School Age Care in Australia

Early Years Workforce Strategy

Primary  years

Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians—This declaration is under review—submissions closed 14 June 2019.

National School Reform Agreement

Australian Curriculum

The Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia

National Assessment Program—This includes NAPLAN, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) which are discussed in this domain. The National Assessment Program also includes civics and citizenship information and communication technology literacy, and science literacy which are conducted with Year 6 students.

The Australian Student Wellbeing Framework

National STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] School Education Strategy

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy 2015

What’s missing?

The sections in this domain include a number of established national indicators; however, consistent national reporting is not available in some areas due to lack of a suitable data source and/or indicator. National work underway to improve the quality, consistency and collection of education data may lead to some improvements in these areas (COAG 2018). For more information on national data gaps, see Data gaps.

A number of topics were not included for other reasons but could be considered for future updates. 

Children’s subjective view of school

There are currently limited national data on how children view their experience at school to support population-level monitoring. Some aspects, such as school belonging and bullying, are captured in data sources such as PIRLS, and the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). See also Specific areas related to schooling below.

Pathways, transitions and outcomes

Initiatives in national data integration work involving learning and development data will create a more complete picture of pathways through the Australian education system.

The National Education Evidence Base was established as a sub-project of the Data Integration Partnership for Australia, with work starting in 2017–18 (Department of Education and Training 2018). The National Education Evidence Base will draw together data on all aspects of education:

  • early childhood education and care
  • schools
  • vocational education and training
  • higher education (Department of Education and Training 2017).

This work could improve understanding of children’s learning trajectories, including the impact of child care and/or preschool on these trajectories, and how trajectories may vary for some disadvantaged groups. Integration of education data with other data sources, such as health, will also give further insight into the relationship between health and educational outcomes; for example, the educational outcomes of children who received long-term intensive care at birth.

Priority populations

Currently, data are not available on school attendance for a number of priority groups, including attendance of children:

  • from low socioeconomic groups
  • with disability
  • in out-of-home care.

There may be opportunities to enhance information through linkages; for example, NAPLAN and National Disability Insurance Scheme data, and regular linkage of literacy and numeracy data relating to children in out-of-home care.

National data on children who are home schooled are also limited.

Specific areas related to early learning

The Early learning section predominantly focused on how often children were read to. It was supplemented with data on the number of books in their households. This does not capture information on the actual quantity and quality of the early learning experienced.

National data on other types of learning, such as learning experiences at an early child care centre or exposure to other learning-based activities and materials, are also not available.

Specific areas related to schooling

The Bullying section in the Justice and Safety domain gives some overarching information on bullying at a national level but this does not paint a clear picture of bullying at school or other types of unfair treatment at school.

National data on school expulsions and suspensions are also limited.

Student engagement

Student engagement, comprising behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement, is also an area of increasing interest where comprehensive national reporting is not available (SCRGSP 2019b).

School attendance is 1 measure of behavioural engagement (see Attendance at primary school), and students’ attitudes towards school is 1 measure of emotional engagement.

Student attitudes are not reported here, but sense of school belonging is included as part of regular PIRLS reporting (see Reporting Australia’s results PIRLS 2016) and could be considered for future updates.

Currently national data are not available to report against cognitive engagement (SCRGSP 2019b).

Box 1: Defining Language Background Other than English and Non-English Speaking Background

Different data collections use LBOTE (language background other than English) and NESB (non-English speaking background). While these terms have the same meaning, both are used in this report to remain consistent with the original data sources.