Although international definitions of early childhood repeatedly refer to a birth-8 age span, there are complex, institutional divides within this age range. This paper explores the divide between pre-compulsory and compulsory early childhood institutions. In countries such as Finland this divide is not such an issue because children do not begin formal schooling until age seven or eight. However, in Australia these 8 years include both pre-compulsory programs (often birth-5) and compulsory schooling. We argue that in situations where the early years of compulsory school are included in a country’s definitions of early childhood, they often occupy a tenuous place in research, policy and practice. Drawing from the history of early childhood education in South Australia, we explore the place that the early years of school have occupied in early childhood discourse, policy and practice and then consider some contemporary state-based and national reforms. Our hope is that by considering the South Australian past, the paper may provide a space from which to advocate for policies and structures that uphold specialist expertise and leadership in the early years of schooling.