UNICEF release State of the World’s Children Report

UNICEF has released its annual “State of the World’s Children Report”.

Thirty years have passed since The State of the World’s Children began to publish tables of standardized global and national statistics aimed at providing a detailed picture of children’s circumstances.

Much has changed in the decades since the first indicators of child well-being were presented. But the basic idea has not: consistent, credible data about children’s situations are critical to the improvement of their lives – and indispensable to realizing the rights of every child.

Data continue to support advocacy and action on behalf of the world’s 2.2 billion children, providing governments with facts on which to base decisions and actions to improve children’s lives. And new ways of collecting and using data will help target investments and interventions to reach the most vulnerable children.

As usual, the report includes some incredible statistics on children’s development, education and how their rights are being upheld (or otherwise).

The site includes some fantastic interactive explorations of the numbers that make up the global picture for children. Some of the incredible statistics include:

  • 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5 in Sierra Leone;
  • In half of the world’s countries, 80% of children 2–14 years old have been subjected to violent discipline

The report is interesting to read alongside “Children’s Chances: How Countries Can Move From Surviving to Thriving”, which also presents a wealth of data on how countries are progressing with children’s rights.

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Early childhood education: the next great Australian project?

I was fortunate enough to attend a breakfast event at Parliament House this morning, hosted by Goodstart Early Learning and Early Childhood Australia.

As well as featuring MPs (including the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley), Professor Frank Oberklaid spoke on the importance of investment in public policy aimed at the early years.

As the Founding Director of the Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Professor Oberklaid is an expert on the development of young children – particularly their brains.

He made a strong argument for a greater, bipartisan focus on funding investments in early years programs, particularly early childhood education and care.

As all the most recent research tells us, children exposed to vulnerable situations will start life on the back foot – and will most likely never escape that handicap.

Yet the evidence also shows that quality early childhood programs can help to close that gap, at a significantly lesser cost than trying to close it later in life.

I was particularly struck by Professor Oberklaid’s challenge to view investment in the early years as Australia’s “next Snowy Mountain” project. This chimes with my own frustrations on current public policy in the early years, which is more “fiddling around the edges” of existing systems.

It would be incredible to see a bipartisan commitment to undertaking the big reforms that are needed – not to change the odd regulation, or add another bit here, but to fundamentally alter how we support young children and families in Australia.

Can ECEC close the gap for Indigenous children?

Over at The Conversation, Brad Farrant has looked at the latest COAG report on the National Education Agreement objectives.

“In order to provide due recognition and respect for Indigenous culture our measures, policies and practices must also be sensitive and responsive. We need to ensure that our early childhood development and education programs are culturally appropriate and ready for all children. This effort could also profit from having a close look at what is driving the success in other countries such as Norway.

We know what needs to be done in the area of early childhood education. But unfortunately, we are seeing government policies go in the opposite direction.”

As with a number of reports recently (including Australia’s Welfare 2013, from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare), the COAG report points to some gains across broad objectives.

But, as ever, Indigenous children are still well behind their peers. Farrant argues that greater investment in early education is the best way to close this gap.

COAG’s next meeting will be the first test of the new Government’s attitude to the early education sector.

Survey: Families prioritise spending on ECEC over PPL

Goodstart Early Learning has released the results of a survey conducted throughout June that sought opinions from Australian families on the early childhood education and care sector.

Goodstart chief executive Julia Davison said paid parental leave was not the main driver when it came to women’s participation in work. “Access to affordable quality childcare needed to be the second big leg of work and family policy alongside paid parental leave,” Ms Davison said.

“International research cited in a recent report by the Grattan Institute suggests that government support for childcare has about double the impact on female workforce participation as spending on paid parental leave. We would like to see the next government prioritising new investment into early learning and childcare so that parents do not end up wearing the additional cost of the quality reforms.”

Ms Davison said new investment should be an additional term of reference for the Coalition’s proposed Productivity Commission review of the sector. “Our government’s education spending priorities of inadequate investment in children’s early years do not reflect the priorities of Australian families and run counter to international best practice and research,” she said.

The importance of early education

There’s still resistance [to the NQF changes] from some in the sector, mainly private operators who complain about costs and the timetable for change. They say the changes are ”too much, too soon” and that the cost of complying with the new standards has pushed up childcare fees.

Yet failing to provide qualified teachers would be unthinkable at any other level of schooling. When young children start school, parents know their child will be taught by university-trained teachers who are required to continually update their skills through ongoing professional development.

Until the national framework’s introduction at the beginning of last year, there was no such requirement for our youngest children. Yet, as years of brain research have shown, children’s ability to perform in the first years of primary school depends on the experiences and learning acquired from birth.

Maxine McKew, The Age (24/2/13)

Early childhood education is not just about families

The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Childcare and Early Childhood Learning Sussan Ley this weekannounced the terms of reference for a Productivity Commission inquiry into Australia’s early education and care sector.

As expected, the focus is entirely on affordability, flexibility and workforce participation. In the two-page document, there is one reference to early learning outcomes for the 992,520 identified children in an early education and care centre.

I’m not exactly sure why the Shadow Minister bothers to have “Early Childhood Learning” in her title, as it is clearly of little or no interest to her or the Coalition.

The Coalition is barking up the same tree that governments (including the current Labor Government) have continued to bark up for the entire history of the sector.

“What is the impact on families? What is the impact on the economy? What is the impact on workforce participation?”

With nearly one million children accessing early education and care, we should ask a seemingly obvious question: what is the impact on children?

The Labor Government has at least put forward a National Quality Agenda to provide a focus of educational outcomes for children. But without addressing the structural problems of the sector, these will struggle to be anything more than token gestures.

Both sides of politics have failed to reach for an early education vision beyond fees, waiting lists and productivity.

The Coalition would roll back regulations at the first opportunity, creating the environment for more disturbing incidents in services, such as a case of alleged torturein Queensland.

The Labor Government failed to take the opportunity presented by the collapse of ABCLearning in 2008 to fundamentally repudiate the for-profit model of providing education and care to young children and take overall responsibility for the sector.

Research from around the world has repeatedly proven the importance of giving children access to quality, play-based learning and educational experiences in the first five years of their life — and not just 15 to 20 hours of preschool a week. Over 90 per cent of a child’s brain is developed in the first five years, before they even set foot in a school. If the Prime Minister is serious in her challenge of placing Australia’s education system being in the world’s top five, early education cannot continue to be ignored.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children has also revealed the exponential benefits of early learning in educational and social outcomes in later life. The investment we make in early intervention and equity for all children right at their start of their lives can be repaid many, many times over in their futures.

And yet as a community, we cannot make up our minds about what we want the sector to be.

Early learning advocates have a vision for the sector as a free-to-access, universal model that can be accessed by all children in our community. The possibilities of lifting children out of inequality and vulnerability are limitless.

The other side is those entirely see the sector as just “care”, essentially organised babysitting. This view is one of individualism, that the education and care of children is the responsibility of the child’s parents. In this model, centres can be all-but-unregulated, no qualifications are required and private operators can make as much money as they want.

This is the choice that Australia, as a community, needs to make. It cannot work both ways, but the Labor Government is currently attempting to do both.

Labor speaks of educational outcomes and quality environments for children, but will not undertake the sweeping structural reforms necessary to actually achieve that. Simply adding new requirements on to already strained, underpaid and undervalued early childhood teachers and educators simply will not work.

With the released terms of reference for their planned inquiry, the Coalition is clearly signaling that they have no interest in early education and are purely focused on the short-term economic and political goals.

So much for the nearly one million children in an early education and care service today.

The early childhood education and care sector in Australia is being pulled in two vastly different directions right now, and it cannot continue. A simple choice needs to be made.

Remove all educational requirements from the sector, and just be basic “childcare”. No qualifications required, limited regulation, minimum-wage for the workers and available only to those who can afford the fees.

Or, reform the entire sector so that educational, learning and social outcomes can be effectively set and met. This would require a large investment, but the benefits are far beyond that initial investment. The Government is already committing large amounts of money to the sector, but indirectly (through rebates to families) in a way that gives them no control over where the sector is heading.

Individuals will always complain about their taxes going to things they don’t like, but the community as whole benefits when we support individuals to achieve their potential.

Both sides of politics need to lay their cards on the table. Trying to do both will not work.

But it must address the question that no-one wants to answer in these inquiries. What is in the best interests of the nearly one million children that this will affect?

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website.

The benefits of early interevention

“No single approach to education works for all children with autism – that is why it is a ”spectrum” and that is why there is a broad range of supports available in the education system – from the jelly bean jar or teacher’s aide support in mainstream class, to high support with high staff ratios in specialist autism schools.”

“Not all disabilities are created equal”, Kathryn Wicks (SMH)