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Are Lifestyles Contributing to Decline in Education?

Alarm bells are ringing and political mileage is being made, about the perceived decline in education standards in Australia. The quality of teaching that students receive is a crucial factor in their success at school. More should be done to ensure the quality of teaching that students receive and more needs to be done to support and retain quality teachers. However, our aspirational lifestyles and the failure of some parents to support their children’s development in the crucial years BEFORE school are also contributing to the decline.

I am all for the early identification of students who are struggling with the development of the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy. Without doubt literacy and numeracy are the key building blocks of education and will continue to be in the next generation.

The Federal government’s proposal to implement a strategy to identify students who, at six years of age, are ‘at risk’ of not successfully achieving these essential skills highlights three issues.

  • How do we best help the identified students ‘catch up’?
  • What resources are required?
  • Why are education standards declining despite governments purporting to be investing more?

I’m ambivalent about testing six year olds. It can be argued that early identification provides the best opportunity for effective intervention. However, allocating additional resources (and time) to testing without resourcing the intervention necessary to ‘close the gap’ will lead to further headlines and ‘teacher bashing’.

The ‘sleepers’ in this debate are that schools already know who the ‘at risk’ students are and it is time for a rethink on the roles of parents and government in the 0 to 4 age group. It is at this phase of rapid brain development that many of these issues arise.

Schools already know who the ‘at risk’ students are. At the end of the first week of school any early years teacher worth their pay cheque can tell you which of their students are ‘at risk’. This professional opinion is also evident in the AEDC census conducted in schools across Australia every three years.

The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) is a nationwide data collection of early childhood development at the time children commence their first year of full-time school.  The AEDC highlights what is working well and what needs to be improved or developed to support children and their families by providing evidence to support health, education and community policy and planning.

The AEDC is held every three years, with the 2015 AEDC data collection being the third collection. The census involves teachers of children in their first year of full-time school completing a research tool, the Australian version of the Early Development Instrument. The Instrument collects data relating to five key areas of early childhood development referred to as ‘domains’, these include:

  • Physical health and well being
  • Social competence
  • Emotional maturity
  • Language and cognitive skills
  • Communication skills and general knowledge

The AEDC domains have been shown to predict later health, wellbeing and academic success. Research by Associate Prof Sally Brinkman (Co-Director of the Fraser Mustard Centre in Adelaide) using the AEDC indicators to identify vulnerable children is showing a close correlation between children who are identified on the AEDC as vulnerable and their NAPLAN performance in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

The students identified in the AEDC process as being vulnerable present with significantly lower NAPLAN scores in Year 3. Not surprisingly non-vulnerable students achieve higher scores. The gap that is evident in Year 3 NAPLAN performance continues in Years 5, 7 and 9. Playing ‘catch up’ is very challenging and resource intensive.

The evidence suggests that interventions in schools are working and the students are making progress. The vulnerable students identified in Year 3 appear to be making progress at a similar rate to the non-vulnerable students. This is a credit to the programs that schools are implementing to support students. However, the ‘gap’ doesn’t appear to be closing.

Whilst I am NOT advocating ‘giving up’ on these students, it appears that investing early to improve their starting point will have a greater impact than trying to play catch up and close the gap.

According to Associate Prof Brinkman’s research, from birth we already have some signals to predict which children and families may benefit from greater supports. Traditionally such families have greater barriers and are less likely to access support services. Often these ‘at risk’ families are harder to reach.

A number of school communities are showing great initiative in undertaking or hosting community outreach programs in an effort to have greater impact in the 0 to 4 age group. As a hub for other government and non-government services they are having an impact on school readiness and ultimately the child’s learning, well before they are eligible for school.

It is time for parents to step up. It is vital that parents take responsibility for the vital stage of brain development that occurs from 0 to 4 (before the students even start school). As the child’s first teacher it is essential that they support their early development. This doesn’t necessarily mean outsourcing or funding extra-curricular intervention. Reading to children, talking with them to develop their vocabulary, playing with them outdoors and managing their screen time are crucial at this stage and can’t be sacrificed because we are too busy or tired as a result of pursuing an aspirational lifestyle.

Parenting is an investment of time and energy. It’s value can not be over stated. Early intervention to support parents in the vital 0 to 4 phase will ensure that students are better prepared for school and address the perceived decline in standards.