In 2003, the Australian Government Task Force on Child Development, Health, and Wellbeing released a consultation paper, Towards the Development of a National Agenda for Early Childhood, designed to stimulate debate and inform a National Early Childhood Agenda. The task force identified four action areas: healthy families with young children, early learning and care, supporting families and parenting, and child-friendly communities. The government developed a draft framework for the agenda, and subsequently, through the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy, provided funding to a number of communities throughout Australia to develop innovative
strategies to improve outcomes for young children and their families, focusing especially on improved service delivery for young children, and stronger links between services through 2009.53
The first part of the strategy, Communities for Children, encouraged the development of tailored and flexible approaches to the local needs of early childhood populations. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were funded as facilitating partners in 45 communities around Australia. The NGOs engaged communities through the establishment of local committees (coalitions) and the creation of strategic and service delivery plans. These included a series of strategies and programs that supported early learning and literacy, social and communication skills, and enhanced parenting and family functioning.
Early Childhood-Invest To Grow
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The second stream of the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy was designated as Invest To Grow. This was designed to provide flexible funding for a range of initiatives, from evaluation of existing programs through to the development of new promising intervention strategies. It also provided funding for the establishment of a parenting website (www.raisingchildren.net.au)the Raising Children Network,54 created and managed by a consortium comprising the Centre for Community Child Health and the Parenting Research Centre in Melbourne, and the Smart Populations Foundation in Sydney. The comprehensive web site offers practical advice on a wide range of health and development topics including parenting advice and information about nutrition, and is becoming an authoritative, useful and popular source of information.
Invest to Grow also funded an Australian adaptation of the Canadian EDI-(the Australian Early Development Index-AEDI) which has now been used in over 60 communities around Australia.55 After this successful pilot, the new Rudd government committed funding to roll out the AEDI throughout Australia. By the end of 2009 population data about children at school entry will be available for every community in Australia. This AEDI initiative has provided a boost to the early year's agenda at both the state and national levels. It is anticipated that when the detailed maps of children's developmental vulnerability are made available to each community, local communities will be motivated to pursue more ways of improving children's outcomes, by expanding services to young children and their families.
The third stream, Local Answers, funds small-scale local projects that help disadvantaged communities find their own solutions to problems. There have been a wide range of
projects, from building parenting and relationship skills, to assisting community members to volunteer or mentor others. Finally, a program called Choice and Flexibility in Child Care provides Australian parents with a number of innovative child care solutions, including in-home care and long day care schemes.
The election of the Rudd labor federal government at the end of 2007 has led to stronger and more strategic support for the early childhood agenda. Because the Rudd government has extended funding for the national expansion of the AEDI, data on child health and school readiness will now be available for every Australian community with a population over 600 by the end of 2009. Early childhood development is now seen as essential strategy of the new government's reform agenda in the areas of education, social inclusion and enhanced productivity. The federal government has also made a commitment to fund a year of preschool for all children, and there are plans to fund additional preschool for children at risk.
One of the persistent barriers to advancing an early childhood agenda has been the division of funding and responsibilities between the federal and state government that is compounded by the division of funding between relevant health, education and social welfare portfolios. The new federal government has committed to working more closely with the states to align policies and funding and to remove other obstacles to reform. Formal meetings between federal and state governments under the aegis of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) have included a focus on integrating early-years strategies and aligning national and state investments in this area. Federal and state governments are negotiating, for example, a common set of regulations for child care, with a view to aligning them with national accreditation standards. A national early year's learning framework has been drafted, and will inform the training of early year's professionals as well as support the development of enhanced early learning environments for children in child care and other early years' settings. The government's commitment to raising the quality of child care is exemplified in its expansion of early childhood training courses at colleges, improving qualifications for caregivers, and reducing child-to-caregiver ratios. The collapse of the country's largest private child care operator has intensified debate about how best to provide high quality and accessible child care, as well as remove the distinction between child care and early learning. As the early year's reform agenda continues to evolve in coming years, it is anticipated there will be further increases in resources allocated to early childhood
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While it is premature to judge the success or failure of any of the countries' early childhood initiatives, their experiences can help inform the ongoing early childhood policy debate. This analysis may be timely, given the Obama administration's commitment to early childhood, overwhelming support for the need for health sector reform, and an economic crisis driving the creation of a substantial stimulus package and a re-conceptualization of the foundations of the U.S. economy. This unique set of circumstances could move early childhood to the center of emerging policy debates, and open a policy window for transformative system change.90,91
Recruiting and retaining good teachers ranks as one of the most significant roadblocks to
solving the preschool quality crisis facing this country. Evidence points to the low wages
and benefits offered to preschool teachers as the single most important factor in hiring
and keeping good teachers.
• Policy makers should not depart from preschool education models that
have proven highly effective. These models typically have reasonably
small class sizes and well-educated teachers with adequate pay.
• Teachers in preschool programs should receive intensive supervision
and coaching, and they should be involved in a continuous
improvement process for teaching and learning.
• Preschool programs should regularly assess children's learning and
development to monitor how well they are accomplishing their goals.
• Preschool programs, in order to produce positive effects on children's
behavior and later reductions in crime and delinquency, should be
designed to develop the whole child, including social and emotional
development and self-regulation.
• Because an earlier start and longer duration does appear to produce
better results, policies expanding access to children under 4 should
prioritize disadvantaged children who are likely to benefit most. More
broadly, preschool education policy should be developed in the context
of comprehensive public policies and programs to effectively support
child development from birth to age 5 and beyond.