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Fixing the foundations

The most recent United Nations data continues to show that the four main Nordic European nations – Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland – have much lower levels of poverty, far less inequality, and much greater wellbeing, among children than do the US, Britain and Australia.

Professor Fiona Stanley, 2003 Australian of the Year and Norman Gillespie, chief executive of UNICEF Australia, writing in The Age (December 6, 2010) highlight how this report’s comparison “of 27 OECD countries shows that Australia spends just one-quarter of the leading country, Finland, and almost half the OECD average on early childhood education”.

We do not allocate enough resources to pre-school education and we do not value it in our society, they argue.

“For too long, day care has been seen as a babysitting facility. Yet quality early childhood development is crucial in creating empathy, personal connection and establishing the foundations for effective lifelong learning.”

They point out that even at primary school we are spending 30 per cent less than the top-ranked country and 20 per cent less than the OECD average.

“We are establishing inequality in our society from the beginning of a child’s life.
The Australian government can and must do much more in making early childhood development accessible and affordable for all Australians, not just the wealthy.”
Well-balanced, loving and productive adults are more likely to have had the foundations established in the early years of their development. Children from the poorest families are specifically at risk, they argue.

A landmark new book by British researchers Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, also highlights Finland and the other Nordic nations’ achievements in early childhood development.

This book powerfully argues how increases in socio-economic equality starting in the earliest years of life promote positive health outcomes for all members of society for many decades to come.

Professor Frank Oberklaid, director of the Centre for Community Child Health at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, is concerned about the loss in Australia of carefree childhoods in strong communities. He is also frustrated about the failure of policy-makers to respond adequately to the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence on the importance of early intervention.

He has been quoted in The Age (November 8, 2010) as saying that: “If you look at some of the societal problems we face like crime … illiteracy, poor school outcomes, mental health, obesity, heart disease…they don’t suddenly appear in adolescence and adulthood.”

Many of those conditions begin in pathways that start early in life, he argues.

“There are…clues from a very early age when things start to go off track: whether it’s a child’s language delays, whether it’s behavioural problems, parents not coping, or child abuse. That’s where we should be investing…All of the science is screaming out: prevent those problems from occurring, intervene early”.

The same article, however, reports on positive “new…signs [that] Australia may be about to remove some obstacles to early intervention”.

We have “become the first country to have national data on the developmental health of all five-year-olds, broken down and mapped state by state, region by region, community by community. Last year the first national results – under the banner of the Australian Early Development Index [AEDI] – were released by the federal government.

“Based on the scores from a teacher-completed checklist, the index measures the health of all children in their first year of school in five key domains of early childhood development: physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, communication skills and general knowledge. The results are a type of social barometer, showing the outcomes of the first five years of children’s lives and providing a baseline for what might happen next”.

There is a remarkable convergence occurring now in the conclusions reached by researchers in the traditionally very separate disciplines of medicine and political economy.

Diverse epidemiologists and paediatricians are increasingly demonstrating the importance of equality and poverty reduction for children’s wellbeing. Their findings have clear implications for the economic and social policy which governments should now pursue.

The Age (December 8, 2010), meanwhile, separately reported that Prime Minister Julia Gillard has summoned premiers and chief ministers to Canberra in February to inject energy into her reform agenda: indicating that she wants the Council of Australian Governments [COAG] to agree on work “in priority areas”. Areas for discussion at the February 14 COAG meeting will include reports on early childhood development.

At an earlier meeting in July 2009, COAG started to develop an early years agenda, including a priority to “strengthen the workforce across early childhood development and family support services, particularly around leadership and interdisciplinary practice, to better support children with special needs, and to deliver culturally inclusive services”.

COAG thereby recognised that early childhood and child care should be priority reform areas in view of the stark international evidence that investment in the early years of life delivers particularly strong returns for the community through successful outcomes and reduced need for costly interventions in later life.

The report on early childhood development to the upcoming February 14 COAG meeting needs to include updates on progress with, and resources for, the introduction of a required 15 hours a week of kindergarten for four-year-olds in 2013, particularly in growing but socio-economically disadvantaged areas.

Various political and economic commentators have been calling lately for bold reforms. To cut child poverty in Australia to the low levels of Nordic Europe would be a genuinely bold reform which everyone should now support.

Although a more integrated policy approach to the ‘early years’ has developed in the last decade in Australia following overseas leads, it is crucial now to extend these leads beyond where they have been primarily limited to date, which is to the English-speaking countries.

In September 2009, following a presentation I gave to the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) conference, that conference issued a Communique stating that:

Australia must learn from cultures with a positive attitude to children and young people…[and] from public policies that achieve high levels of child wellbeing; adequate support for parents, carers and families; and low levels of child poverty…for example, policies in the Nordic countries.

The ARACY conference also outlined a major strategy “to set internationally comparable health and wellbeing targets for children and young people for the next 20 years” with “critical elements of this strategy” to include “raising Australia’s international standing to high levels of child and youth wellbeing, to match the levels achieved by the Nordic countries”.

The Nordic European nations’ contribution in this area is largely due to their distinctive ‘macro’ level policies on welfare provision, well-resourced public child care, extensive paid parental leave, and regulation of industrial relations including working hours. These policies promote secure and appropriate jobs in terms of work-family balance, boost women’s labour force participation and reduce joblessness among families with children.

The high employment rates, including appropriate forms and standards of part-time work for women, the high unionisation and substantial compression of wages in the Nordic nations help cut child poverty to the lowest levels in the world.

It has been calculated by economist Professor Peter Whiteford that if it were possible to reduce ‘joblessness’ among families towards the consistently low levels of the Nordic nations then that alone would mean that child poverty would fall by as much as 4.5 percentage points in Australia.

This suggests that reforms to further reduce joblessness among families with children must now be of the highest priority.

It will also be positive, as part of responding to the vital new data which the AEDI is revealing, to undertake research to model the practical local benefits which the introduction in Australia of particular Nordic European approaches and programs can bring.

Andrew Scott is Associate Professor in Politics, Deakin University

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