The latest Australian Early Development Census has found one in five children across the country are vulnerable in at least one area of their development when they start school.
The 2015 census was the third of its kind to be conducted.
When it first took place in 2009, the number of children who were vulnerable in at least one area was at 23.6 per cent. It fell to 22 per cent in 2012, and has stayed there.
This year’s results pointed to overall progress in the language and cognitive skills area, with 84.6 per cent of children on track in 2015 compared to 77.1 per cent in 2009.
There was also improvement in communication and general knowledge, with the number of developmentally vulnerable children decreasing from 9.2 per cent in 2009 to 8.5 per cent in 2015.
The remaining three categories showed a lack of progress.
In the emotional maturity domain, progress that appeared to have been made between 2009 and 2012 was undone.
The number of children considered developmentally on track rose from 75.6 per cent in 2009 to 78.1 per cent in 2012, only to go backwards to 76.4 per cent last year.
The social competence domain has seen a slight decrease in the number of children on track, from 75.4 per cent in 2009 to 75.2 per cent in 2015.
There was also an increase in the number of children vulnerable in their physical health and wellbeing, from 9.3 per cent in 2012 to 9.7 per cent in 2015.
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said the onus for development in the preschool years was on families.
“With one in five children struggling in terms of their skills when they get to school, and particularly when it’s basics like whether they’ve had a good breakfast or a good night’s sleep, these are things that families and parents need to take responsibility for.
“But we can make sure there are services targeted in local communities to help those parents.”
Experts said it was essential not only for families but also for governments on all levels to make sure children were not being left behind.
“What we do for children in the first five to eight years is absolutely everlasting,” said Professor Sharon Goldfield from the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Centre for Community Child Health.
“There’s a real interest in the policy and practice environment to say, ‘what should we be doing to put kids on the right trajectory for their life?'”
More boys developmentally vulnerable; Indigenous gap narrows
The data revealed 28 per cent of boys were considered developmentally vulnerable, compared with 15 per cent of girls.
Boys were twice as likely to be vulnerable in the area of physical wellbeing than girls, with the number of those lagging behind increasing from 11.9 per cent in 2009 to 14.5 per cent in 2015.
The Education Minister said this needed to be addressed, but it was also important to recognise some developmental differences were to be expected.
“Emotional developments of girls do lag boys. So seeing a gap in terms of those figures is not only a natural factor that we would expect to see, but almost a reliability test in terms of the data,” he said.
“But we importantly do need to recognise that there seems to be a real gap in other ways around boys and girls, especially around physical wellbeing.”
The census also revealed there had been no progress in bridging the gap between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds or those living in cities versus those in regional areas.
“It suggests to us that maybe we need to be thinking more creatively about the way we’re targeting our effort, thinking about this idea of fair distribution of resources,” Professor Goldfield said.
“Are we really targeting the best resources, the best people to the areas that might be the most disadvantaged?”
But the data did mark some progress, with the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children narrowing.
“What we’re seeing across the nation is a closing of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, which is very welcome but still a huge task to be performed,” Senator Birmingham said.
The language and cognitive skills domain was one area which improved, with the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children shrinking from 20.7 per cent in 2009 to 14.5 per cent in 2015.