Since 2009, the Australian Early Development Census has been measuring how young children in Australia are developing.
Based on data showing Mandurah children were quite developmentally vulnerable, in 2012 the City of Mandurah endorsed and implemented the "Early Childhood Strategy 2012 – 2016 ‘Better Start Better Future’".
With council this week voting on the future of the Early Childhood Strategy, I decided to take a closer look at the data, see how Mandurah children compare to the rest of Australia, and look at what improvements, if any, have been achieved since the implementation of said strategy four years ago.
Understanding the Census
The census has been conducted in 2009, 2012, and 2015. Teachers from around the country answer questions about children in their care. It measures development across five areas.
The areas are:
- physical health and wellbeing
- social competence
- emotional maturity
- language and cognitive skills
- communication skills and general knowledge
An overview of the results
This is a graph showing the percentage of children who were developmentally vulnerable in 2012 (so the lower the number the better). Below you can see how Mandurah children were doing compared to the average Australian child. Mandurah is in blue. As you can see, Mandurah children were rated worse in every area.
Percentage of children developmentally vulnerable in 2012 (lower = better)
Now here is the graph for 2015. It's easy to see that there was a marked improvement for Mandurah children. Mandurah children still ranked slightly worse in the areas of language and emotional maturity, but ranked better than the national average in the other three key areas. On the whole, the numbers are very positive.
Percentage of children developmentally vulnerable in 2015 (lower = better)
You'll note the sections Vuln 1 and Vuln 2. These refer to the percentage of children developmentally vulnerable in one or two areas, respectively. They are key indicators.
As noted in the report from the City of Mandurah:
"Mandurah children are now less developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains than Australian children and Western Australian children. The percentage of Mandurah children who are developmentally vulnerable on two or more domains has reduced and is now on par with Australian children."
In a nutshell, Mandurah children are doing better than the national average. This is great news.
So the problem is solved then?
Drilling down into the data shows that not all Mandurah suburbs are created equal. Some are much worse than the national average, and have actually grown worse since 2012. Dudley Park, Greenfields and Central Mandurah all stand out.
Here's a graph showing those three suburbs compared to the Australian average in 2015 for the Vuln 2 metric (developmentally vulnerable in 2 or more areas).
Percentage of children developmentally vulnerable in two or more areas - 2015
As you can see, Mandurah still has some suburbs that are significantly worse than the national average, and the numbers haven't really improved in the last few years.
So what did the City of Mandurah actually do?
These are what the City is calling its "main achievements" from the Early Childhood Strategy:
- Mandurah Families Guide - Five thousand copies have been distributed to families. A second edition is in development.
- Community Grants Program - Supporting projects that provided opportunities for children to participate in community life.
- Nature Play - connecting children to their natural environment.
- Community Engagement
- Libraries and Learning - Including running 'Rhymetime' at schools and the libraries.
Why have some Mandurah suburbs improved and others haven't?
The data doesn't clearly reveal this. It could simply be a case of parents who are more likely to access the services newly created by the City have used them to great effect, while those further down the socio-economic ladder aren't struggling due to a lack of accessible services, but for other reasons.
In this case, perhaps a more holistic approach to the issue would be useful. Which leads us to what happens next.
So what's the City of Mandurah going to do now?
At this week's council meeting, councillors unanimously voted to endorse the development of an overarching Community Development Plan to be brought back to Council for consideration in 2017. The idea is to roll a number of specific strategies into one overarching development plan. It will include aspects from the Active Aging Plan, Early Childhood Strategy, Reconciliation Action Plan, Access and Inclusion Plan, and the Social Infrastructure Plan. One outcome of having the various strategies under one plan is that team collaboration will improve and reduce overlaps.
But if the current strategy is working, why on earth change it?
This is a good question.
It's very rare that one is able to so tangibly measure the success of a council initiative. Much of the time when an initiative is implemented, the report goes something like "people liked it so we think it worked". Here we have actual data, and will continue to have data into the future.
Council voted unanoumously to merge the Early Childhood Strategy as a part of a larger strategy. Time will tell if this was a good idea or not.
But there is an argument for keeping it as a seperate strategy.
Councillors have many issues each week that need their attention, not to mention their actual day jobs. Thus, they rely on the City staff to report on the outcome of the various strategies and plans. The councillors themselves often don't have the time to research every issue to the Nth degree.
In the report to Councillors this week on the Early Childhood Strategy, City staff hailed the strategy as a success, stating "The greater majority of the actions written into the plan have been accomplished."
Now, If we do away with the Early Childhood Strategy, and instead make it part of a Community Development Strategy, in five years, hypothetically, the same statement may be made: "The greater majority of the actions written into the plan have been accomplished." But it would take some digging to discover that the developmental levels of children in Mandurah were actually in decline. And while everyone is patting themselves on the back because of the "successful" plan, the truth regarding young children may be buried in between words like "greater majority".
By keeping the Early Childhood Strategy seperate from an overarching "Community Development Plan", its success or failure would remain far more stark.
However, given the fact that there are still a number of suburbs in our community that have not improved despite the implementation of the Early Childhood Strategy, perhaps having an overarching strategy focusing on more aspects of community life will help improve outcomes for more children.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on the data in 2018 to see if we've been successful in lessening the developmental vulnerabilities for more children in our community.