ECA perspective: Australia’s First Nations children 

Two important papers about Australia’s First Nations children were released in the same week in February. Both have implications for young children in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The joint ECA and SNAICC—Voice for our Children position paper reflects both organisations’ commitment to ensuring that First Nations children get equal opportunities in Australia and are able to thrive. At a glance the Government’s Closing the Gap report suggests that the youngest First Nations children are doing well. This blog explores why, although most are thriving, too many remain developmentally vulnerable.

Last week, the Australian Government released the latest Closing the Gap report, which reports on a range of health, education and employment targets that governments are aiming to meet in order to improve the lives of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Some successes

One of the successes highlighted in the report was the target to have 95 per cent of Indigenous four year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025. The target was reported as being ‘on track’, and as such, that is welcome news, but the reality for our very youngest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is still one of disadvantage and vulnerability. When we look beyond the target, and more closely at outcomes, we can see that there is more work to do to enable young Indigenous children to develop to their full potential.

What does the data tell us?

First, it is important to note that in 2015, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were twice as likely to start school developmentally vulnerable in one or more of the domains reviewed in the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC). Indeed, 42 per cent of all First Nations children started their first year at school developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains. While the AEDC process may not always effectively gather information about First Nations children, it does remain the best national measure of development that we have at this age level. The AEDC releases data every three years. It will shortly release its 2018 Census, providing four national snapshots since 2009.

Second, the Closing the Gap report makes the point that when we consider whether children were attending for 600 hours a year (the level stipulated in the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children attendance rates are considerably lower than non-Indigenous children; only 68 per cent of children attended for 600 hours, as compared for 78 per cent of non-Indigenous children. Lower attendance was also correlated to the remoteness of services, with attendance decreasing as remoteness increased. The Report of Government services, released early this month, also identifies that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are under-represented in early education and care services, and are only half as likely to attend a Child Care Benefit approved early childhood service than other children.

What does this mean for an early childhood sector response?

These statistics speak to crucial issues when considering how we should respond to the needs of our very young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children—issues that were highlighted in a recent joint position paper by Early Childhood Australia and SNAICC—National Voice for our Children. The position paper—Working Together to Ensure Equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children in the Early Yearswas released in the days leading up to this year’s Closing the Gap report.

Importantly, we need to recognise that First Nations children face significant barriers to accessing high quality early education and care services. These barriers can exist at a number of levels: they can be individual, and involve the number of children in a family, employment, income, discrimination and housing; they can be service level barriers, which include issues such as service quality, and cultural competency; social and neighbourhood barriers that include how transient a community is, their living conditions and the level of social and geographical isolation; and importantly cultural barriers, such as a lack of trust in services or difficulty culturally engaging. Until policy makers substantively address these barriers in their policy responses, we won’t see gaps around developmental vulnerability shift.

Meaningful support for families

The ECA-SNAICC Position paper makes some specific recommendations around the type and nature of services that should be available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and their families. It calls for integrated services that address more than early education, by supporting families in meaningful ways across a range of areas (e.g. health, parenting support) and builds engagement with families over the longer term.

High quality education for longer

It also advocates for First Nations children to have access to high quality early education and care services and for longer periods of time. Specifically, it recommends that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have access to 30 hours a week of high quality early education (preschool programs) for two years prior to them starting school. This is a substantially higher amount of service level than what current policy is advocating, and higher than what is being achieved in terms of attendance.

We know that evidence shows that good family support and high quality early education has the capacity to transcend disadvantage, and to offer young children the best start in life. But while most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are starting school developmentally ready, too many are not. ECA is passionate about ensuring that First Nations children get equal opportunities in Australia, thrive and be recognised and supported within their cultures. It’s time to re-evaluate the Closing the Gap targets for our youngest First Nations children, and to put in place the policies and programs that the evidence shows will be effective in giving them and their families, the best start in life.

Three areas for Federal Government action

The joint position paper by ECA and SNAICC report was endorsed by more than forty leading child welfare, education and research organisations, and urges the Commonwealth Government to work alongside state and territory governments to:

  1. Establish new early childhood development targetsto close the gap in the AEDC domains by 2030, and an accompanying strategy—through the Closing the Gap refresh
  2. Commit to permanently fund universal access to high-quality early education for three- and four-year-olds, including additional funding to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children get access to a minimum of three days per week of high-quality preschool,with bachelor-qualified teachers.
  3. Invest in quality Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled integrated early years services, through a specific early education program, with clear targets to increase coverage in areas of high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, and high levels of disadvantage.

Click here to find the full ECA-SNAICC Position Paper: Working Together to Ensure Equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children in the Early Years. For the discussion paper: Ensuring Equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children in the Early Years, click here.

Endorsing organisations

This position paper is endorsed by the following individuals and organisations:

  • Aboriginal Early Childhood Support and Learning Inc • Australian Community Children’s Services • Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) • Australian Library and Information Association • Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) • Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY) • Brotherhood of St Laurence • Central Australian Aboriginal Congress • Child Australia • Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM) • Coolabaroo Neighbourhood Centre • Early Learning and Care Council of Australia • Early Learning Association Australia • Families Australia • Family Matters – Strong communities. Strong culture. Stronger children • Future Tracks • Goodstart Early Learning • Group of Eight (Go8) • Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, University of Technology Sydney • KU Children’s Services • Lady Gowrie Childhood Education Queensland • Murdoch Children’s Research Institute • National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) • Ngangk Yira Research Centre for Aboriginal Health and Social Equity, Murdoch University • Nikinpa Aboriginal Child & Family Centre • Oxfam Australia • Playgroup Australia • Professor Fiona Stanley • Professor Larissa Behrendt • Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak (QATSICPP) • Reconciliation Australia • Save the Children • Speech Pathology Australia • Telethon Kids Institute • The Benevolent Society • The Front Project • The Parenthood • UNICEF • UnitingCare Australia • Uniting Communities • Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) • Victorian Aboriginal Children & Young People’s Alliance • Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc. (VAEAI) • World Vision Australia • Yorganop.
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Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

One thought on “ECA perspective: Australia’s First Nations children ”

    Catharine Hydon says:

    Even though we should be pleased with some of the gains there remains BIG issues – why in 2019 are outcomes for children and families and communities, the young and old so bad!!
    Questions of racism and colonisation need to be asked again and those in power need to listen closely to the messages coming from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about self-determination and representation..

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