Closing the gap target unachievable if current reforms go through

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Earlier this week, the Federal Government launched the annual Closing the Gap report. As seems to now be the story every year, there are a few things to celebrate (such as the decline in infant mortality) but much more that frustrates.

In early childhood education (ECE), targets have not been met. A new target of 95% of Indigenous children enrolled in ECE in 2025 has been set. With collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities, and sensible policies from Governments, this target could be met well before a decade passes.

With the current reform package before the Senate, there is no chance of this target being achieved. Which explains why they’ve put it off for a decade.

From Calla Wahlquist in the Guardian:

On Wednesday the 2016 Closing the Gap report set out the new goal of getting 95% of all Indigenous four-year-olds, not just those in remote communities, enrolled in preschool by 2025.

But the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) says the user-pays funding model proposed under the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2015 would threaten the viability of Aboriginal-run child and family service centres, halve the number of subsidised childcare hours available to low-income families that don’t meet a new “activity test” requirement, and further disadvantage Aboriginal children.

SNAICC deputy chief executive officer, Emma Sydenham, said the decision to scrap the Budget Based Fund, a top-up for those services that couldn’t cover their costs with fees or individual child subsidies, 80% of which were Indigenous, may force centres to close.

“Their focus is only on the needs of particularly vulnerable children and families in their communities,” Sydenham told Guardian Australia. “Their focus is not on how to meet the bureaucratic needs of these policies.”

There is a particularly kind of madness or cruelty (or both) in speaking the easy words of healing, consultation and Closing the Gap while putting forward policies that will make those things impossible.

This isn’t just about closing an inequitable gap in outcomes become Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It’s actually about improving lives and opportunities.

If the Government believes that slashing access to one of the most proven ways of addressing inequity – early childhood education – is the best way to meet this target, I dread to think what they have planned to address all the others.

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Early childhood education and Indigenous Australia: what is our responsibility?

You may have missed it in the general political chaos of the last couple of weeks, but a new Government report has revealed some truly alarming statistics regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

According to the Report on Government Services, 14 991 Indigenous children are currently in out-of-home care. This represents almost 35 per cent of children in the out-of-home care system, despite the fact that Indigenous children only represent around 4 per cent of the total number of Australian children.

Over-representation of Indigenous children in both the out-of-home care system and the juvenile detention system (where, according to ARACY, Indigenous children are also 10 times more likely to be represented) appears to now be embedded in Australian society. As SNAICC points out, these statistics have increased by 65 per cent since Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, which was meant to mark a turning point in reconciliation within our country.

The annual Closing the Gap Report released this week has confirmed that work towards a number of targets, including early childhood education enrolments, is not progressing.

Leadership is sorely missing from this issue in Parliament. Nearly 40 years after Gough Whitlam travelled to Wave Hill Station and symbolically handed the land back to Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people, it is difficult to see any of our current crop of leaders as capable of such leadership.

At first glance it may seem that those of us who work in early education and care cannot do anything about this. Surely this is a political issue. Why do we have to do anything? What can we do?

We can start with the National Quality Framework. This large-scale reform of the sector was based on a key foundational document, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians which, as quoted in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), ‘commits to improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and strengthening early childhood education’. The EYLF also directly states that ‘early childhood education (with educators who are culturally competent) has a critical role to play’ in achieving this goal.

We know that addressing structural disadvantage and vulnerability must start in the early years. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has conducted a significant amount of research demonstrating the necessity of early childhood being a critical part of the Closing the Gap strategy.

Quality early learning experiences can support all children to get the best start in life. Given Australia’s past and our responsibility to Indigenous Australians, there needs to be a significant and sustained focus on embedding Indigenous perspectives in early childhood education and care—first with educators, and through them young children and families.

We can draw a direct line between our work as professionals in the early education sector and the potential for improved outcomes for young Indigenous children. A quality start to primary and secondary school could be the difference for any number of children and their families.

Addressing disadvantage and vulnerability is our responsibility because it is happening on our watch.

Nelson Mandela once said that ‘there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Australia has a long way to go in closing the gap for Indigenous children. As professionals, we should not have to be forced to take ownership or responsibility for this issue—we should embrace the opportunity to influence change with both arms.

Regardless of your own background, your own community, your own cultural competence—what will you do to be part of the solution?

I state clearly here that I do not and would not presume to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon male and as such am representative of many of the past and continuing struggles that face the First Australians on this land that was, is and shall always be Aboriginal Land.

For the perspectives of Indigenous people regarding these issues, I recommend visiting the websites of SNAICC and Reconciliation Australia, as well as the specific support of your local Indigenous Professional Support Unit.

This article was originally posted on Early Childhood Australia’s blog The Spoke.

Closing the Gap report highlights the need for a greater focus on Indigenous perspectives in the early years

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The Prime Minister Tony Abbott handed down the sixth Closing the Gap Report in the House of Representatives yesterday.

While there have been some successes, primarily in child and maternal health, it is clear that Australia is not moving fast enough or smart enough to meet the 2030 targets.

Tony Abbott, who has regularly spent time in Indigenous communities and has connections with community leaders, has stated that he wants Indigenous Affairs to be a priority in his Government.

A worth aim, but it stands at odds with the Government’s funding cuts to legal services.

Meeting with 2030 targets will require a much higher level of investment, as well as a much greater effort to change attitudes and intolerance within the country. This has to start in early childhood.

Angela Webb in The Australian advocates strongly that targeted support needs to be directed into the early years, citing the wealth of evidence that support in this space reaps enormous benefits down the track.

Indigenous children already remain under-represented in early-years services. Yet there are currently only about 300 indigenous community-controlled early-years services across Australia, servicing a population of 146,714 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from birth to eight years old. This is manifestly inadequate, yet the conversation is not about redressing the vast gap in service coverage but the ongoing survival of the few existing services.

The early childhood education sector has a powerful role to play in addressing Indigenous disadvantage, but it is currently failing to meet that potential. As Webb writes:

At the time of greatest potential to reverse the disadvantage that many indigenous children face, we are letting them down. Funding for indigenous early childhood services, already lagging far behind that for other children, will be cut in June.

The National Quality Framework has included a strong focus on Indigenous perspectives, and is a foundation of the Early Years Learning Framework. However the complexities and challenges of working in this space require significant investment in professional development and training for educators and teachers, which has not been seen as yet.

Quality early learning experiences can support all children to get the best start in life, but given Australia’s past and our responsibility to Australia’s first people, there needs to be a significant and sustained focus on embedding Indigenous perspectives – first with educators, and through them young children and families.