The National Early Years Summit brought together Australian experts on the critical first five years of a child’s life and kicked off a consultation process on the all important Commonwealth’s Early Years Strategy. With the data from the Australian Early Development Census (AECD) showing that 22 percent of children were assessed as developmentally vulnerable in at least one domain, we know that some children are experiencing even higher rates of developmental vulnerability.
We also know that these children stand to benefit the most from policy interventions during their first two thousand days so there is no time to waste in getting the best possible strategy in place and executed.
As an advisory firm with a policy and personal passion for the early years, our team has been watching with interest and now growing excitement as we see real opportunities for policy change and quality implementation which to date have proven elusive for governments and their departments.
One of the most frustrating challenges was highlighted by the Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, who told Radio National that policy development and service delivery is too fragmented.
“What we’ve got is a lot of siloed information and what we need to do is bring that all together in how we make sure that the systems, the policies, the programmes are better integrated, but importantly, have the voice of families and children at the centre,” Minister Richworth said.
One program that has risen above these usual constraints is Connected Beginnings, which supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from birth to the age of five, with the key objective of building school readiness.
Connected Beginnings brings maternal and child health services together with preschools, schools and family support services so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have a place in their community to access this support. By proactively engaging families and providing tailored, wrap-around support, the program improves preparedness for school, which drives increased attendance and improves education outcomes.
Connected Beginnings supports 34 sites across every state and territory in Australia but this will expand to 50 sites by 2025 after a $81.8 million commitment to the program in 2021. The Albanese Government recently announced nine of these new sites, benefiting 3,500 children.
There is much to learn from the program’s quiet success.
The Early Years Strategy Discussion Paper recognises this, by identifying Connected Beginnings as a valuable example of how government departments can work together. Yet, the lessons learned by Connected Beginnings go well beyond the working relationship established between the Education and Health Departments. These lessons can and should be captured as guiding policy principles in order to ensure that the Early Years Strategy has the policy prowess to address our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families.
The following unpacks some of these design features in a way that can translate to other areas of early years policy and, importantly, program and service design:
The program places a premium on parental engagement by working with pregnant women.
We know that parental engagement is vital to school attendance and that parental engagement plays an enormous role in ensuring that children attend the 15 preschool hours funded by all governments.
The relevant National Partnership Agreements on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education has played a huge role in increasing enrolment, but we now need to direct more attention to the hours actually attended, particularly amongst vulnerable and disadvantaged cohorts.
The 2021 Preschool Reform Agreement is a positive step forward because preschool attendance has so much to offer in terms of closing the school readiness gap between First Nations children and non-Indigenous children. In this regard, Connected Beginnings is promising. Attendance at early childhood education and care has increased from an average of 350 hours per child in 2019 to 381 hours in 2021. A further evaluation is due for release mid-year and we look forward to seeing whether this improved attendance has continued.
Connected Beginnings applies the Collective Impact approach, incorporating both “place-based” and “co-design” elements at its very core.
Place-based initiatives, such as Connected Beginnings, and emergent ones such as the multi-agency PHN-led Western Sydney Kids Early Years (KEYS) Network which coordinates assistance to disadvantaged families, recognise that the contexts and needs of children and parents differ from one community to another. This makes place-based approaches particularly profound in areas of entrenched disadvantage, where broader policies have previously failed to make an impact. Connected beginnings operates on a “place-based grant” which means that the funding must be used to meet the specific needs of that specific community.
Each Connected Beginnings program is co-designed with the community. This is vital because it means that the community owns the process, rather than having it imposed on them. The success of the program relies on its capacity to identify and address local needs.
Community ownership makes it more likely to be accepted, implemented and, therefore, succeed.
The 2019 evaluation of the program outlines some of the practical ways that Connected Beginnings has deployed place-based co-design. This includes: ongoing interaction with the community; employing local people on the work and local engagement; including Elders on leadership groups (such as advisory committees); connecting with people in a culturally safe environment; and deliberately linking “hard-to-reach” families with services.
The 34 sites and myriad of lessons is helping to build school readiness amongst vulnerable and disadvantaged cohorts in a way that this country has not seen before. Another evaluation of the program is pending, and should be instructive for the ongoing development of the Commonwealth Early Years Strategy. Evaluation is the only way we can effectively build evidence-based policy.
We hope that these success factors help you flesh out your submission to the extensive Early Years consultation process and of course we are happy to help. Public submissions on the Strategy close on 30 April.
Leanne Wells is Director of Policy and Advocacy at 89 Degrees East.
1 Amanda Rishworth and Anne Aly, “Development of Early Years Strategy informed by National Summit,” Press Release, 17 February 2023, https://ministers.dss.gov.au/media-releases/10326
2 Amanda Rishworth, “Minister Rishworth interviewed on Radio National with Patricia Karvelas,” Transcript, 17 February 2023 https://ministers.dss.gov.au/transcripts/10336
3 Connected Beginnings, Department of Education https://www.education.gov.au/child-care-package/community-child-care-fund/connected-beginnings#toc-evidence-and-evaluation