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The early childhood agenda in Australia
  1. Frank Oberklaid
  1. Centre for Community Child Health, Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Flemington Road, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia; frank.oberklaidrch.org.au

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    Child advocacy is a complex, often frustrating, and never ending process. One of the key ingredients of successful advocacy is to understand and take advantage of local issues that capture the imagination of the public or the media, and capitalise on this interest to influence public policy.

    It is interesting to look at examples of how this has been done in different countries. In North America, much of the momentum that has developed in early childhood policy has stemmed from what might loosely be called “brain development research”. This is a mixture of old and new research showing that the first three years are especially important in influencing a child’s long term functioning. It has been suggested that the rapidly developing brain in the first three years is extremely vulnerable to environmental influences, both positive and negative. Long term physiological functioning of the brain is affected by subtle structural changes influenced by these environmental experiences. Hertzmann has called the young child’s brain “an environmental organ”, which captures beautifully the profound influence the environment has in those early years.

    The huge interest in early childhood and brain functioning has been given great impetus by a series of influential reports and publications from foundations and institutions such as the Carnegie Corporation, the Families and Work Institute, and the Rand Corporation. This has captured the interest of the mainstream media as well as parents and parent organisations. In most states in the USA there are policy initiatives addressing various early childhood issues. Similarly, in Canada there has been a significant push in recent years, both at a federal and provincial level, to increase the investment in services for young children and their families (www.childcarecanada.org/policy/polstudies/can/earlyyrs.html).

    In the UK, it seems that the drivers have been different. Sure Start, an innovative, community based programme designed to address poverty and its consequences in children under the age of 4, has generated a great deal of interest internationally, and is held up as a model whole-of-government approach to early childhood. Other drivers include enquiries and subsequent reports into the tragic deaths of children because of child abuse or failures in clinical quality systems, and an influential publication in the British Medical Journal several years ago,1 the outcome of which was the establishment of a children’s task force.

    In Australia too, early childhood is beginning to appear on the lips of politicians and policy makers. Most states in Australia now have some sort of policy initiative in early childhood. In New South Wales it is Families First, in Victoria Best Start, in South Australia “Every chance for every child: a healthy start for our children”, in Tasmania “Our kids’ action plan”, and so on. While there are similarities in the content of the rhetoric used, there is considerable variability in the detail and the comprehensiveness of the programmes themselves, and by and large the additional investment in children’s services has been paltry.

    At national level too, the Liberal Government last year released a “National Agenda for Early Childhood” (www.facs.gov.au/internet/facsinternet.nsf/family/early_childhood.htm) as a discussion paper and invited comments and feedback, and engaged in a comprehensive consultation strategy with states and institutions. This has generated a positive response, and submissions regarding new policies (and more importantly money attached to them) are about to go to cabinet for endorsement.

    The drivers of putting early childhood on the agenda have been different in Australia. The media has, until very recently, not been involved at all. Child abuse has intermittently been in the news, but this is largely a state issue so there have not been the national enquiries with far reaching recommendations as there have been in the UK.

    The advocates for early childhood in Australia have been a passionate and committed group of professionals, with paediatricians prominent among them, who began lobbying and organising several years ago. An advocacy and information sharing group called the National Investment for the Early Years (NIFTeY; www.niftey.cyh.com) was established following a meeting of interested individuals held in 1999. More recently members of this group, again with paediatricians prominent, were involved in the establishment of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY; www.aracy.org.au). This is a national collaboration of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from a broad range of disciplines, and has an ambitious agenda of establishing data networks, promoting collaborative research, and developing an effective communication and advocacy strategy.

    The cause was helped greatly when the head of ARACY, Professor Fiona Stanley, herself a prominent child health researcher, was nominated as “Australian of the Year” for 2003. This gave her an influential and very public pulpit from which she could (and did) spread the message about the importance of the early years.

    Finally, the election to the leadership of the federal opposition labour party of a youngish (early 40s) man—Mark Latham—who is himself the father of two young children, may well turn out to be the most effective policy lever of all. He has already flagged that early childhood will be a major policy plank for his party in the lead up to the next election, which must be held some time this year. Stay tuned.

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