Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
There’s been a lot of focus on early childhood development as the site of inequality in the past few years. Persistent gaps in educational achievement for disadvantaged children are frequently attributed to things like a lack of quality early childhood education or the fact that privileged children are read to by their parents.
There is significant truth to be found here. Research shows that children’s potential can be affected by the environment they grow up in prior to starting school. Risk factors contribute to disadvantage, and include things like poverty, low parental education, poor quality home learning environment, poor parenting, presence of conflict, family instability and abuse and maltreatment.
To remedy this, governments and independent researchers have, for decades now, been running what are known as ‘early childhood interventions’, which aim to reduce the developmental impact of these kinds of risk factors.
More than just preschool or childcare, these interventions contain multiple and varied modules, such as playgroups, childcare, counselling, parental seminars and structured play sessions. The goal is to improve children’s environments by working with parents and hopefully alter the child’s life trajectory by making them better-prepared for school and life beyond.
It is all very appealing, which is why they have become all but common wisdom in overseas countries like the US and UK, and have made a decent showing here in Australia. But unlike our foreign cousins, Australia falls down in the crucial area of good-quality evidence.
Whereas the US and UK have things like clearinghouses and foundations dedicated solely to pursuing research that can inform future programs and policy, Australian governments are largely ad-hoc with the evaluation of programs they actually run.
Out of 11 recent programs with evaluations that have been made public, only three had a relatively high-quality design, and many didn’t measure the real impact on children in the short-term, let alone the longer term — which is where the promise of this policy tool actually lies. Programs have been continued for several years or expanded in spite of weak evidence.
Governments must act to improve the evidence base for this policy. Taxpayers and the children involved deserve it.
One in five Australian children begin school with poor language skills. In disadvantaged areas, it’s close to one in three. Parents and carers have an essential role in building language and literacy development in the early years and can also play an important part on reading development when children start school.
Reading with children has a significant relationship with their language development but some ways of doing this are more effective than others. The biggest impacts of shared reading come when adults involve children in the process of reading — pointing out letters and the sounds associated with them, talking about words and their meanings, and encouraging children to engage with the reading process.
Research has shown that parental reading activities significantly increase children’s reading ability, expand their vocabulary, and develop the expressive language skills that make it easier for children to learn to read when they go to school.
An Australian study found that children whose parents read to them every day from a young age achieved higher NAPLAN scores — the equivalent of between 12 and 20 weeks of schooling — than children who were read to less often.
A new part of the FIVE from FIVE reading campaign will focus on the literacy impact parents can have when they read to their children. It uses the evidence base on early literacy development to provide high quality, research-based advice and resources for parents.
Reading to children won’t prevent all reading problems, however it gives children an important head start into developing the key literacy skills that underpin all educational achievement and have profound ongoing effects on employment, health, and general quality of life, including love of reading.
The FIVE from FIVE project provides parents with essential information and resources including:
The new parent section of the project will launch online on September 24.
There is no doubt we need strategies to tackle the high Indigenous crime rate but crime prevention initiatives shouldn’t be reliant on funding being diverted from the prison system — as the trial of ‘justice reinvestment’ in the New South Wales town of Bourke suggested in this week’s edition of ABC’s Four Corners.
While many of the initiatives implemented in Bourke under the umbrella of justice reinvestment make good practical sense you don’t need the banner of justice reinvestment to implement them. For instance, the program to teach young people to drive and get their licence, and the way police and Aboriginal leaders are now working together to reduce domestic violence in the town.
Justice reinvestment’s emphasis on better data collection and monitoring of programs is worthwhile, but government should already be doing this as a matter of course. We should not need to divert money from prisons to collect data and monitor what is happening to taxpayer’s money.
Labelling all these initiatives ‘justice reinvestment’ and having a time limit of three years is setting the town up for failure and disappointment. So much hype surrounds justice reinvestment that when it does not result in the closure of a prison, people will say it hasn’t worked — and it’s likely all the programs and initiatives it has funded will evaporate.
Tom Calma was right when he said “the time has come for a smarter approach”, but he was wrong when he called for a roll out of justice reinvestment initiatives across Australia.
You don’t need an expensive justice reinvestment pilot to implement change.
The narrow focus on keeping people out of prison is also wrong. What is needed is a complete overhaul of the whole service delivery system to Indigenous communities.
For too long governments have convinced themselves they are contributing to better Indigenous outcomes simply because they are spending money on Indigenous programs. But the government has acted as permissively as the parents of Bourke who let their children roam the streets at night.
Improvements will only occur when organisations are made to formally account for how they have spent program funding and provide credible evidence on the program’s effectiveness.