Published: June 5, 2018

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2016-29


Francisco Azpitarte, Abraham Chigavazira, Guyonne Kalb, Brad M. Farrant, Francisco Perales, and Stephen R. Zubrick.

An updated version of this paper has been published in Economic Record. DOI: 10.1111/1475-4932.12440

Non-Technical Summary:

Closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in the early years has become a priority for policymakers. However, due to a lack of data, very little is known about the influence of childcare on developmental outcomes among Indigenous Australians. We use unique Australian data to examine a number of early development outcomes. Our research investigates the types of childcare used by children age 0-5 from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent and their cognitive outcomes compared to those who did not attend childcare.

We find that the use of formal childcare is much lower for Indigenous children than children in the general Australian population, with no more than 30% attending childcare at any given age compared to 55% of the general population (at age 2 to 3). About 95% of Indigenous children had used informal childcare (e.g. a relative, neighbour or friend) by the age of five. Traditional Indigenous context features a more communal approach to the care, mentoring and education of children –it is not a job undertaken solely by the parents but supported by the community as a whole. In addition, we found that Indigenous children from more advantaged families are more likely to attend formal childcare (such as Centre Day Care).

We also investigated the influence of formal childcare attendance on the cognitive development of Indigenous children, measured using a wide range of validated and culturally appropriate instruments. We found that compared to Indigenous children who never participated in childcare, Indigenous children who participated in childcare performed better on most cognitive outcomes measured across the preschool years. However, these differences disappeared when we accounted for child and family characteristics, which suggests that they are entirely driven by selection into childcare. In other words, children from more advantaged families are more likely to attend formal childcare than children from less advantaged families, and these children already do better than children from more disadvantaged families, regardless of childcare attendance. Interestingly, tentative results suggest that relatively disadvantaged children might benefit more from attending childcare.

However, with the data available, the evidence remains weak. Although the LSIC data are a major improvement compared to what was previously available (and better than what is available in other countries), the sample size is still relatively small, information on local formal childcare availability is missing, and specific characteristics of formal childcare are available for only a small proportion of children attending childcare. If these limitations could be overcome, evidence on whether disadvantaged children would benefit more from using formal childcare than more advantaged children could be strengthened, thus providing more targeted and robust policy recommendations.


December 9, 2016