Effective child protection requires rigorously evaluated models

early childhood school kids children teaching interventionThe Turnbull government is focusing on early intervention, but overlooking what’s needed for it to succeed.

There is commitment to ‘prevention through early intervention’ through reform of the welfare system — the ‘Priority Investment Approach’, that will analyse welfare recipient data to target spending towards programs that have success in diverting people from the path of welfare reliance.

This approach to policy, relying on evidence about the effectiveness of particular programs to scale up those that work and ditching those that don’t, is long overdue. But Australia is none too flush with solid evidence of what works. Nowhere is this clearer than the early childhood intervention programs Australian governments and non-profit organisations have been funding and running for more than 15 years.

Early childhood interventions aim to shift the life trajectory of disadvantaged kids prior to starting school. Decades’ worth of research from overseas, particularly from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, outline how comprehensive family-focused programs can have substantial impacts on the lives of disadvantaged children — and also deliver savings to governments and communities.

Australian long-term studies highlight the capacity for experiences in early childhood to continue to exert an impact over the longer term in a child’s life, and confirm that there is a theoretical window of opportunity for the right policy to have a significant impact.

Nevertheless, the state of evidence-based early childhood intervention policy in Australia is parlous at best. A review of 11 evaluated Australian programs designed to improve cognitive, behavioural and socio-emotional outcomes for children found the reality is that early childhood interventions have not yet been proven to live up to their promise.

Programs run in Australia are plagued by the use of simplistic evaluation methods that use low-quality and subjective data such as surveys. Evaluations often do not measure the impact on the children, preferring instead to rely on parenting self-reports of their confidence in their role as a parent.

The lack of follow up (only one of the 11 programs examined had a long-term analysis component) means it is impossible to determine whether the effects are enduring. This makes it difficult to prove whether there is a model that works to effect long-lasting change; much less whether the program represents value for money.

It is possible to draw a few conclusions from the Australian evidence. The ‘service coordination’ model of improving outcomes has not been found to have particularly strong impacts. And where the place-based model has shown signs of effectiveness, it has involved a structured program and taken place in an existing site of community engagement, such as a school.

Some targeted interventions — discrete programs with a fixed structure for participants, rather than ongoing place-based service coordination where participation is wholly user-driven — have been found to have stronger impacts. Nevertheless, it’s the place-based model that rules when it comes to commissioning new programs and continuing old ones.

It’s difficult to conclude definitively that this distinction makes a difference, though it does reflect overseas evidence. The UK’s Early Intervention Foundation published a report reviewing 75 different programs that concluded the evidence of effectiveness is strongest for ‘targeted-indicated’ programs, where participants are selected based on early signals of risk in child development.

By contrast, Australian programs are not evaluated often enough relative to the amount of time they have been in place. It is not unusual for programs for continue for several years and undergo expansions regardless of lacklustre evaluations, or no evaluation.

Effective, efficient and clever use of early childhood interventions could have substantial impacts on improving the lives of individual children — particularly those who are most disadvantaged — and on taxpayer spend. Turning this potential into reality requires policymakers and bureaucrats to rigorously assess whether long-running programs are having the desired impacts, and to focus on those that do.

Federal, state and territory governments should better evaluate the programs they run, fund high-quality experimental research, and create avenues for policy cooperation between governments and non-government organisations. This is crucial to the success of any kind of social spending reform that relies, as the Priority Investment Approach does, on identifying the best programs and scaling them up.

Future programs must be implemented with a clear evaluation plan established as part of the implementation process. Equipped with better-quality Australian evidence, and overseas research on best practice, public policy should be focused on trialling and evaluating new models in an effort to find the best way forward.

Our children deserve nothing less.

Trisha Jha is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of the research report Early Childhood Intervention: Assessing the evidence base.