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Towards a National Child Wellbeing Strategy

Children's Rights

Speech by National Children's Commissioner Anne Hollonds to the Parliamentary Friends of Early Childhood

Thanks for this opportunity to share some reflections on my vision for early childhood policy.

I would first like to acknowledge the traditional owners – Ngunnawal and Ngambri people – and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

My observations this morning will draw on a growing tower of evidence about child development, human capability, and the economic value of investing early to prevent problems and costs escalating.

As the new National Children’s Commissioner, it’s my job to monitor how well our policies and service systems are supporting the rights and wellbeing of all our children, especially those who are living with disadvantage and are likely to miss out on the conditions that support a good childhood.

As discussed this morning, we are failing to create the conditions to enable all our children to live well, to support their mental health and develop their social, emotional, physical and cognitive abilities, including the key human capabilities which are foundational for all learning, relationships and productive adult life.

We currently have a fragmented landscape of services across the country. It’s a lottery depending on where you are born. There is no national co-ordination to ensure the safety, health, wellbeing and development of our children. Much of what we do is trying to address the symptoms, not the root causes, such as poverty, discrimination or disadvantage.

The human costs, and economic costs for the taxpayer, are astonishing – here’s just a couple to illustrate:

  • In 2019 it was estimated that it costs over $15b annually for late reaction policy including eg child protection, youth crime, unemployment, homelessness, mental health, and domestic violence.
  • According to the AIHW, every single day, on average 30 children are removed from their own families and placed in OOHC, at great economic cost, and critically, with poor life-long outcomes across future generations.

    The total numbers have grown by 34% over the past decade, and we know that First Nations children are significantly over-represented.

Despite at least two decades of mounting evidence of the human and economic value of investing earlier in prevention and early intervention, and in creating the conditions to support children and their families, we have been unable to shift investment upstream and right now we are continuing to pay more for expensive late reaction policies.

Ambulances at the bottom of the cliff.

How bad do things need to get before we are prepared to do “whatever it takes” nationally, to do the right thing for our children, and for all of us as taxpayers?

Australia is ranked 32nd out of 40 OECD countries on “child wellbeing” and 30th out of 38 countries for educational equality, with a widening gap in reading skills.

20% of Australian children experience significant vulnerabilities and adversity – with immediate and life-long consequences, which can go on for generations.

These are just a few indicators of what it looks like when we fail to invest in a co-ordinated way in the development and wellbeing of our children and their families, who are caring for them.

One of the challenges is the traditional competition for funding. I have experienced first-hand how more money in one policy silo often means less in another one. For example, do you fund more mental health services, or do you fund improvements to education?

Yet we know that having good mental health is necessary for learning. And that good educational practices are supportive of student mental health and wellbeing. (Mental health concerns are consistently the top issue raised in surveys of young people).

For example, the recent PC report on mental health noted that the solutions to preventing mental health problems lie outside the mental health system, including workplaces, education, frontline health services for families, and housing and income security.

We need to invest in creating the conditions that support human capability and wellbeing in a holistic sense across policy areas that touch the lives of children and their families.

It’s time to look for cross-portfolio solutions that can break through the traditional approach of funding discrete programs or service providers working on singular problems.

The idea of human capital or human capability has been around for a long time.

COVID has provided the impetus to think about systems reform with a sharper focus. Things can be contemplated now that previously would not have been on the table.

And there is growing momentum for a significant step up to address the wellbeing of children, from the earliest years, as the core of a new nation-building strategy.

What do we mean by “human capabilities”?

From conception to age 5, we know that the brains of young children develop incredibly quickly, building the foundations of the abilities we need for life. This is then reinforced through development in later childhood and in adulthood. Or not, depending on your circumstances.

Known as “executive functions” and self-efficacy”, these are the basics of how we all get through daily life:

  • In order to be able to focus our attention, to remember things and follow directions, exercise self-control, delay gratification and to solve problems.
  • We use these capabilities in weighing up options and making decisions, and planning ahead.
  • Building on capacities developed in early childhood, we use these skills in our relationships, at home with our families, to persevere and complete training and to hold down a job.
  • “Self-efficacy” is the belief that you can do what is needed to achieve your goals, knowing that you can have some control over what will happen.

    Without this we lack confidence and feel hopeless about investing to make changes, for ourselves and our children in the future. Without self-efficacy we feel like there is no point trying to change.

An example of how this makes a difference:

Probably in your family as in mine, we read books to our very young children because we believe this is a valuable way to invest our time as adults, which will have a future payoff for the children.

In some families, the adults may not read to their children, perhaps they are not accomplished readers themselves – or perhaps, despite the same love and hopes for their children, they don’t have the confidence that reading to young children will make a difference to their future.

It’s these basic human capabilities, if we are lucky enough to develop them, that each of us uses in order to deal with the daily ups and downs of life. They provide the “scaffolding” for resilience and optimism and agency.

But living in stressful conditions like ongoing family adversity, poverty and disadvantage, especially in our early years of life, can compromise the development of these basic capabilities.

While human capabilities can develop throughout life if the right conditions are available, it’s in the earliest years from conception up to age five that we have our best chance to get the highest return on investment.

It’s also the opportunity to do the right thing for our children, based on evidence of how sensitive young brains are to both positive and negative experiences.

Early childhood policy provides unique opportunities to support human capability development across multiple generations at the same time – with

children and the adults caring for them (typically parents and grandparents) or whoever are the family around the child.

Quality and accessible ECE settings can be hubs for health, education and family support services, addressing mental health issues and job readiness, as well as building community support and connectedness.

This matters to children because a child develops in the context of their family relationships and the conditions supporting these relationships: the mental health of parents, and the housing and financial security of the family, in particular.

Early childhood is a uniquely powerful time for evidence-informed policy investment – because the reach across two generations creates a multiplier effect. If we use the opportunities that innovative early childhood policy provides, the benefits are multiplied and amplified throughout the life course and into future generations.

The development of children can be impaired or enhanced depending on our ability to get it right for them.

Why wouldn’t we have the goal of getting this right, to do whatever it takes, when so much is at stake?

When it comes to free public education from the age of 5 to 18 years, there is no argument about the role of government.

It wasn’t always the case. 120 years ago, in Australia this was still contested by the churches who opposed secular education, and it was opposed by farmers who said they needed children to work on the farms and it was argued that compulsory education could risk the collapse of the economy.

Attitudes changed and the role of government in educating children is no longer contested.

The question now is: Why does the role of government commence at the age of 5, when we have scientific evidence of rapid early brain development?

And we know that if you start school at age 5 with developmental vulnerabilities, you are likely to never catch up.

We know from the AEDC and from NAPLAN, that in fact the gap will widen through primary school and beyond.

We currently have a fragmented complex array of services in what’s often called the “childcare market”.  For example, last week I saw a media report about “profitability” in the childcare sector returning to pre-COVID levels, and that “childcare fees were expected to rise this year as demand increased and vacancies fell”.

There are real questions to ask about whether the current situation is fit-for-purpose in 2021:

  • Given what we now know about the importance of investing in the development of human capabilities especially in the early years,
  • given what we understand about the unique intergenerational multiplier effects of early childhood policy,
  • and given how important the workforce participation of parents is to our economic and social wellbeing,

why are we not seriously reconsidering the role of government in the early years and embarking on a nation-building strategy post-COVID?

This year we have once-in-a generation opportunities to lift our gaze to the post-COVID decade.

Right now, there is work being done on over half a dozen separate national portfolio strategies that directly affect the lives of children and their families who are caring for them, and significantly more across portfolios in the states and territories.

At the Commonwealth level these plans are typically developed in portfolio silos and it continues to be difficult to plan across departments.

COVID has shown us how important things get done: National co-ordination at the National Cabinet level; cross-portfolio planning and co-ordination for a crisis. We have had to be agile and adaptive and to change how we think and act. Post COVID this is our chance for game-changing action.

My bold vision as Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner is

  • An over-arching National Child Wellbeing Strategy – with clear accountabilities across portfolios and oversight by the National Cabinet. 

This will be the umbrella for all the separate silo strategies, enabling cross-portfolio system reform over time, and unleashing the potential currently locked up in the way government operates.

This can be supported by multidisciplinary and person-centred approaches to policy design, for all areas of domestic policy that touch the lives of children and their families - drawing on expertise from business, philanthropy, NGO’s, research, government, and children and families themselves – and shortening the “evidence into action” gap.

An intergenerational perspective will enable us to address the evidence that child risk factors are mirrored by adult risk factors.

We will move from implementing separate “programs” to redesigning whole systems. Imagine something like a virtual “CSIRO” for human capability development.

Despite loads of good intentions, it’s apparent that business as usual will not create the changes required.

We need to understand how our systems are failing our children and how we, and our current ways of operating, are actually supporting the conditions that keep things the same.

Anne hollonds

Anne Hollonds, Children's Commissioner

Children's Rights