Social Policy and Education - Appropriations

By Matt Keogh MP

25 May 2021

Watch Matt's speech here.

Labor is the party of the social safety net, but it's also the party of prosperity—nobody left behind and nobody held back. We are on the side of Australian families. Australia is a wealthy nation, and there is no reason why people can't have access to good health care, quality education, a roof over their head and a job to go to as well. This is a core belief of Labor. Good economic policy is good social policy and vice-versa. They are two sides of the same coin, not distinct and separate areas of work. In my community, there is some wonderful work going on to support those who need it most. I've stood in this place before to discuss some of those programs, and I believe there are lessons we can learn and ideas we should adopt to support families across our nation.

Research tells us that the most important time in a child's development is the first 1,000 days from conception, and we're obliged to provide every support from that time onward, especially to new families. Mr Deputy Speaker, you would have heard about Labor's childcare policy. Currently, Australia is home to some of the highest childcare fees in the world. The way the current system is designed, many families actually lose money if the primary caregiver, often a woman, works more than three days a week. Labor wants to fix our childcare system, and our policy will make child care more affordable for some 97 per cent of families who currently access it. You see, child care is more than just babysitting; it's early education. All over the world there are programs where children are in the education system years before kids in Australia. We are falling behind. We should be fostering our children's minds and development from the early years. Up until the age of four, children are absolute sponges for information. We should be nourishing these young minds, ensuring that kids come into schools with the proper level of knowledge before they reach the formal classroom. Similarly, for kids in households that might be struggling, kids from vulnerable families, the introduction of more accessible and affordable early education will ensure these children have stability and are being looked after properly.

Today the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that children are beginning school without basic literacy and numeracy skills such as recognising letters and numbers. This is contributing to Australia's poor results in international primary school maths tests. Sue Thomson, the Deputy CEO of the Australian Centre for Educational Research, said these gaps were evident when children began school and grew as they got older. She said the research shows:

We need to focus on getting all kids through solid pre-school and having all kids do that, not just some kids and kids in advantaged areas.

We don't want equity to be an issue at kindergarten level, so if we don't want to start there it's important that we do something about bridging that gap. Universal, high-quality early childhood education would be ideal.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Death, the CEO of the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, said vulnerable and disadvantaged children needed at least 35 hours of early learning a week. She says this will pay dividends for educators and children.

Further to this, as much as we want to get parents back into work through a childcare policy—it will improve our nation's productivity and GDP significantly—we must also support parents to be parents. In my community we have child and parent centres in two of my local primary schools, Westfield Park Primary School and Brookman Primary School. They are run by Parkerville. These are hubs that provide high-quality, approachable and accessible services for the whole family. Importantly, these facilities are safe. Families like those in my community often find approaching formal support services difficult. They can be intimidating to those who need to access what they have to provide. But these wonderful services, which are based at local primary schools, are headed by fantastic teams and are excellent hubs of support and guidance. Many people are understandably overwhelmed when they become parents, and these facilities provide a friendly way to access support and resources for new and struggling parents and families. They allow for early intervention to take place, to make sure that there's a connection to services that are required and that children and families are receiving the developmental support and education they need. In 2019 the first cohort of students who started with this program graduated from Westfield Park Primary School. I'm told that their academic and developmental results were a noticeable improvement on those of previous cohorts. That's why I'm so happy to see these services made available in my community, and I'd like to see them expanded throughout more schools so they're available to more people and families in my community.

One of the great benefits that can come from the expansion of these services is the building of a critical mass of benefit across our entire community, making sure that our entire community is lifted through the supports being provided to these families. Using a full-service school hub model would establish a support network for families, both the children and the parents, from a young age, setting them up for success. The Minderoo Foundation funds the Challis Primary School Integrated Early Childhood and Family Support Service. The aim of that program is to prevent early disadvantage from becoming an ongoing drag on a child's chances of success in life.

Challis is located in Armadale in my community. It's an area of great intergenerational disadvantage. The model integrates of suite of services, including a child health nurse, various allied health services and a community engagement worker. Working together through this program, they seeks to address barriers to child develop and reinforce the family and community support necessary to raise thriving children. The model established at Challis has had significant impact. It has enabled local children to go from a position of disadvantage to exceeding the state average at the start of their education. It's through this early intervention that we are setting students up for success when they enter high school.

While the approach undertaken at Challis is comprehensive, it's also at relatively low cost. In the main, it is redirecting existing funding instead of requiring lots of additional funding. Rather than trying to solve problems of early disadvantage via heavily layered, costly, multiagency, top-up interventions that often result in duplication, inefficiency and intervention fatigue among families, this is a lighter, more efficient model. It does this through targeting long-term, cumulative actions that commence soon after birth and extend through the primary school years. It is more accessible. Families access it through a central community location already being accessed by them and familiar to them, the school, instead of trying to run around and find different services at different places that they may not be familiar with.

This program ensures that more children start school ready to learn. Then they're supported through their schooling, as are the parents and their communities, better preparing whole families for the challenge of high school. Evidence from this program at Challis supports the potential of systemic, well-planned interventions to make a difference to outcomes for children, especially those living in areas of significant disadvantage with complex needs—communities just like mine. This research confirms that work. Like the work that has been occurring at Challis, it is likely to be most effective in changing the life course of children in disadvantaged families. The children start school better prepared; therefore when they are graded they have better results. This can change the story of the trajectory of a child's education and life, and that of their family and the wider community around them.

This research is backed up by research commissioned by COAG, the Council of Australian Governments, and points to the merit of establishing integrated and intensive child and family centres in the nation's poorest areas. Across the country, 41 per cent of Australia's most disadvantaged zero- to five-year-olds live in the top 20 per cent most disadvantaged suburbs. The national average for the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas, SEIFA, disadvantage measure is 1,000. A lower score reflects greater disadvantage. For context, Perth metropolitan area's score is 1,033.4. The catchment area for Challis Community Primary School, where this research was undertaken, is a mere 965.9. Children from socially and economically disadvantaged areas such as Armadale typically have poorer physical health, have less access to learning materials from infancy and are less likely to access material and cultural resources than their counterparts in more affluent areas. These are the areas that need this type of intervention.

Last week, I visited Southern River College in Gosnells, the next local government area over from Armadale, where Challis is. Southern River is a school that has come such a long way in a short amount of time, turning around the lives of children and, indeed, the reputation of their school. Sixty per cent of the students at that school are coming into high school, year 7, under standard. They have three years to catch up on six years of literacy and numeracy learning, due to only progressing four years in the seven years that they were in primary school. That's right; they're entering high school with a year 3 level of literacy and numeracy. It takes an average of three years of intensive work to have them catch up, which means it's often not until year 9 that they hit that minimum high school entry level.

Schools like Southern River are working hard to support their students and are going above and beyond, but they are siloed, which they shouldn't be. Southern River wants to work with other schools in our community, both feeder primary and other local senior schools, to support these vulnerable children. They're looking at setting up a community services hub on site that can be utilised by both the school community and the wider community. Similar projects are being taken on by other schools, such as Armadale Senior High School, which is trialling a full service model with additional supports, and other schools are looking to follow suite. But all these schools are siloed. We need a systematic rollout of support to make a true impact on the community that is in need. We need a critical mass. We need federal funding to support these programs for schools in vulnerable communities across the country in order to support students and their families.

Through appropriately funding early childhood education, community support hubs in primary schools and support measures in high schools, we can change the story. We can also fold in and involve federal agencies like Centrelink and the work of Primary Health Networks, headspace and more. We are currently operating on an 1800s school day. The school's structure assumes that parents are available to drop off kids at 8.30 and pick them up at 3.15. This is not reflective of modern Australia. Parents are working. Parents are vulnerable. Parents need additional support. It's in the best interests of communities like mine that we make these changes and support these hubs. We need that critical mass of investment, the right intensive interventions and support at a local community level in order to change the story.