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Broadside: Early Childhood Development – A Tale of Four Cities

By Megan O’Connell, CELA Policy and Research Consultant
Director – Megan O’Connell Consulting and Honorary Senior Fellow, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

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By the age of five around 300,000 children are starting school – but more than one in five are not as prepared as their peers. They may not have the language or communication skills they need to express themselves, and are increasingly struggling to regulate their emotions, to play alongside their peers and to build the physical stamina needed to sit in class, to use scissors and to participate in sport.

Children in every community are starting school behind – but the odds of this vary dramatically depending on gender, indigeneity and where they live. So too does a child’s access to services.

Children who are born further from the city are less likely to have their additional health and development needs identified before school, less likely to participate in a range of early learning experiences possible in inner city areas, and more likely to be left behind.

Not all Australian children have an equal chance to thrive as this examination of recent Australian Early Development Census data shows.

How do we measure vulnerability?

The Australian Early Development Census commenced in 2009 and is conducted every three years. It provides an overview of the development of children in their first year of school against five areas known as domains – physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills and communication skills and general knowledge.

Teachers answers a series of questions mapped to the five domains. The questions are answered based on teachers’ observations of children in their class in their first year of school. These answers are tallied with children are allocated a score from 0 to 10 in each of these domains, and categorised as ‘on track’, ‘at risk’ or ‘developmentally vulnerable’ based on a series of cut off scores developed for each domain in 2009. Schools, communities and governments use AEDC results to target initiatives to reduce developmental vulnerability.

A variety of research links the AEDC to future wellbeing and education outcomes.

The AEDC has been conducted four times, so provides trend data on changes in the level of developmental vulnerability in Australian children over time. Almost all children in their first year of school are included in the census – over 95 percent of children, more than 300,000 children, are included in the 2018 results.

Overall trends in how children are faring

Nearly one in five Australian children are developmentally vulnerable – they start school behind their peers.

Since 2009 the level of developmental vulnerability for Australian children has fallen – developmental vulnerability on one domain has fallen from nearly one in five to over one in four, from 23.6 percent of children to 21.7 percent of children, whilst vulnerability on two or more domains has fallen from 11.8 percent to 11 percent.

When you examine the domains within the AEDC, a more complex picture of early childhood development emerges. Whilst there have been strong improvements in development in language and cognitive skills and communication skills and general knowledge over time, social competence and physical health and wellbeing have marginally worsened. Emotional maturity has fluctuated over time.

This means that although more children have sound language skills and are able to communicate, they may not be able to regulate their emotions, be challenged to short period of time and may not have the physical ability and stamina for tasks like sitting in class and learning to use scissors.

Each of the domains is important to children’s development, so whilst the improvement in language and communications skills is important, the decline in social competence and physical health and wellbeing is concerning.Developmental vulnerability 2009 compared to 2018:

Who has an increased risk of vulnerability?

A significant number of children, more the 60,000 per annum, are developmentally vulnerable in their first year of school. Whilst there are children are in every community that are developmentally vulnerable, some children and communities fare worse than others, including:

  • Boys – eighty percent more likely to be vulnerablethan girls
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) – More than double as likely to be vulnerable than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
  • Lowest socio-economic background – More than double as likely to be vulnerable than children from the highest socio-economic background
  • Very remote areas – More than double as likely to be vulnerable than children from major cities

A tale of four cities

By examining four communities we can see the differences in child development across areas of Australia – including who is accessing what services, and what might need to change to shift results. The results show large difference in community demographics, parental engagement in education and access to educational and support services. They highlight areas that need further government and community attention, if we are to prepare all children for a life of learning.

The table below provides a summary of the data covered in the case studies.

The table illustrates the differing levels of vulnerability as you move further from the city, or from higher to lower economic areas. The differences between the highest socio-economic community in Australia, Ku-ring-gai, and the lowest, Murgon, are stark. Children in Murgon are nearly four times more likely to be vulnerable, and are accessing early learning at nearly half the rate of children in Ku-ring-gai. Nearly a third of children have health and development needs that are yet to be diagnosed.

Looking at other communities you can see differing levels of participation and vulnerability, from a vulnerable inner city community to a more affluent but equally vulnerable regional community.

This data shows us that all children need access to quality early childhood experiences to support parents and families, including access to early intervention services.

The case studies below provide greater detail on the communities in question followed by a consideration of what can be done to improve outcomes for all children.


1. Ku-ring-gai – Highest socio-economic area in Australia

Ku-ring-gai in Sydney NSW is the highest socio-economic area in Australia. Nearly a third of children in this area have English as a second language.

Most children’s caregivers have completed post school qualifications. Their teachers report they transition well to school and that their parents are engaged in their education.

Children in this community are thriving overall – levels of vulnerability are 1/3 lower than on average in Australia with 13 percent children rated as vulnerable on one domain and 6 percent vulnerable on two more domains. There are still over 200 children in this area developmentally vulnerable.

Of the 1766 children in the census for this community, 3 percent of children have diagnosed special needs whilst 9 percent have been identified for further assessment.

Prior to attending school, almost all children attended preschool and daycare and/or playgroup, providing multiple opportunities for learning, interaction with peers and parental support.


2. Murgon – Encompasses Cherbourg – lowest socio-economic area in Australia

Murgon is a small low socio-economic area in regional Queensland. Nearly half of all children have English as a second language, with two thirds identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Around half of children’s caregivers have completed a post school qualification. Teachers’ responded that nearly all children transitioned well to learning the structures at school, but less than three quarters had parents engaged in their learning and less than two thirds had a parent that encouraged reading or read to them.

This community has an extremely high level of developmental vulnerability with nearly one in two children rated as vulnerable on one domain and one in three vulnerable on two or more domains.

Of the 77 children in the census in this community, 3 had diagnosed special needs whilst 24 (31 percent) were identified as needing further assessment.

Prior to attending primary school over two thirds had attended preschool, and a quarter attended daycare.


3. Brimbank – second lowest socio-economic quintile

Brimbank is a large area in inner Melbourne. Over a third of all children have English as a second language.

Over 70 percent of children’s caregivers have completed a post school qualification. Teachers’ responded that nearly all children transitioned well to learning the structures at school, most parents engaged in their learning and over 86 percent encouraged reading or read to them.

This community has a higher than average level of vulnerability with more than one quarter of all children vulnerable on one domain, and over 13 percent vulnerable on two domains.

Of the nearly 2600 children in the census in this community, over 6 percent have special needs and a further 12 percent were identified as needing further assessment.Prior to attending primary school most (over 90 percent) children had attended preschool, and a quarter attended daycare and/or playgroup.


4. Wellington – Inner regional – middle ranking socio-economic area

Wellington is part of the East Gippsland area of Victoria. Around 5 percent children have English as a second language and under 4 percent identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Over 75 percent of all primary caregivers have completed a postschool qualification.

Teachers’ responded that nearly all children transitioned well to learning the structures at school, most parents engaged in their learning and encouraged children’s reading or read to them.

This community has a higher than average level of vulnerability with more than one quarter of all children vulnerable on one domain, and over 12 percent vulnerable on two domains.

Of the 561 children in the census in this community, 5 percent have special needs with nearly 14 percent identified as needing further assessment.

Nearly all attended preschool, with more than half attending daycare and nearly a quarter playgroup.


What does this mean?

The data shows that children born closer to cities, in higher socio-economic communities, are less likely to become developmentally vulnerable. Whilst children in higher socio-economic areas are more likely to fare better, the effects of rurality and remoteness temper this advantage.

Part of the reason for this is access to opportunities – children closer to cities are more likely to attend a combination of learning experiences including pre-school, playgroup and long daycare. This provides a chance to engage children and their caregivers in learning, which will assist children as they transition to and throughout school. The data from the case studies shows that, where children had engaged in more early learning, parents were more engaged when children entered school.

For some families, additional support from when children are young is needed to build their capacity and support the growth of a strong home learning environment. This help can also identify the need for assessment for some children.

A high number of children have undiagnosed needs that are likely to make learning more challenging if unaddressed – the percentage of children requiring assessment is startlingly high in some rural and remote communities such as Murgon.

Early intervention is vital for children with special needs, yet nearly 40,000 children need further assessment in their first year of school. Many of these issues could have been identified during the first five years, placing the children in a stronger position to start school.

These issues can be addressed through our universal platforms such as maternal and child health and early childhood education and care.

Studies such as Right@Home show it is possible to positively influence the home learning environment and to identify children who may require additional support in key areas such as language and communication.

Quality early childhood education plays a strong role in helping to identify and address emerging issues for children before they start school, linking children and carers to the support services they need. At least two years of quality early learning before school is needed for all children and for vulnerable children earlier access could help to identify and address emerging health and development needs.

There is an urgent need for next government to address inequity faced by children and families. It is not right that where a child is born, either distance from city or level or economic advantage, dictates their destiny. We need an approach to identify and assist vulnerable families from early on, and provide all children with the help they need so they can start school ready and thrive.

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