Development of vulnerable Australian children still lagging

Australia experienced the peak of the COVID pandemic from July to September in 2020.

On August 5, Australia had its highest number of new infections with 698 being recorded .

Both new cases and deaths have subsequently declined, with the last death occurring on October 19, 2020.

This decrease can largely be attributed to urgent and ambitious measures put in place by Australian governments.

Governments did things - lockdowns, physical distancing, mask wearing in public places, public education campaigns, new testing and support services - to bring about this positive change.

Politicians were able to make these policy changes because they were supported by the public to make these changes.

And a key reason for the public supporting this was that there was a present and serious danger, and a clear measure of success that the public understood.

In recent weeks I have been engaging with Australia's political leaders and I want them to understand another set of figures having a significant and lasting impact on Australian lives - one in five children start school developmentally vulnerable across our nation.

The Australian Early Development Census tells us that in 2009, there was 23 per cent, or one in five, children in Australia that were developmentally vulnerable in one or more areas.

In 2018, nearly a decade later, this had improved by 1.9 per cent, to 21 per cent. Still one in five children.

In 2008/2009 Australian governments spent $4.5 billion on early childhood education and care alone, and much more if health and family services were included.

This amount is now $10.5 billion.

A 1.9 per cent improvement in the number of children developmentally vulnerable at the cost of at least $6 billion.

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The other side of the equation is the cost of lost opportunity, the loss of human and workforce potential and quality of life because governments did not provide one in five children the best possible start in life.

Whatever way you look at it, this hardly seems like a good return on investment.

Australia's early learning and childhood system needs to be much better.

Thrive by Five is focussing on influencing governments.

Governments hold the major levers that can radically improve child development in Australia. Think of the example of the pandemic response.

In fact, why not place early learning and child care on the agenda of National Cabinet and place it at the very top of the agenda?

There are more than five systems that relate to early childhood learning - childcare, preschool, child health, family support, child protection.

These responsibilities are shared between Commonwealth and state/territory governments, and between ministers and departments within each government.

This is the primary reason why early childhood policy is disconnected and incoherent. This is where meaningful reform needs to start.

The Australian Early Development Census is an internationally recognised national census which monitors the development of Australian children.

The next census, which will occur this year with results being reported in 2022.

It will capture the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children, which will be vitally important information for the community and policy makers.

For example, what domains of children's development and learning will be most affected, if at all? Will children's development in Victoria, who suffered an extended lockdown in 2020, be significantly different from other more fortunate states?

These are important questions; and I congratulate the Australian government for proceeding with the collection despite the obvious risks presented by the unpredictable COVID-19 crisis.

COVID may have increased inequalities in developmental status of Australian children.

It will be important to determine if this is the case, and what magnitude of effect COVID has had.

Equally important will be what governments do with that data.

There is progress to be made if our intention is a world-leading early learning and childcare system and all children thriving is to be realised.

We simply can't afford to delay or fail.

  • Jay Weatherill, chief executive of Thrive by Five campaign and former SA Premier