Advocating for Victoria's children
Don Edgar August, 2012
The Victorian Children's Council has asked me to put together a broad statement on the changing nature of Australian childhood and factors likely to affect future children's and family policy. This should be regarded as a 'Discussion Starter' only, not as a definitive policy document or framework for children's policy. The views expressed are mine and do not reflect any collective view of the Victorian Children's Council.
As the founding Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, I have written extensively on the need for better social policies for children and families, including a recent book co-authored with my wife. (The New Child: In search of smarter grown-ups, 2010) I must point out also, that Victoria already has a number of excellent policy statements and initiatives aimed at ensuring the optimal development of our children and my central plea is for these extant initiatives to be integrated and properly implemented.
Existing policy documents include the PCAC Report (Premier's Children's Advisory Committee) of 2007 which led to the creation of an Office for Children, a Minister for Children and a new Victorian Children's Council; to the VCAMS framework (Victorian Child and Adolescent Monitoring System) which already produces a range of Child Outcomes Bulletins; to the State of Victoria's Children Annual Reports; to the many reports to Government from the Victorian Children's Council itself (ranging from place-based strategies to school transition for the disabled); to the initiatives already taken by the Department of Early Child Development and Education, particularly the Framework for Early Childhood Development produced for the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Board and DEECD's new 2012-16 Strategy; and to the recent Child Protection Report for the Minister for Human Services.
Victoria also has a range of existing services aimed at optimizing child development and education - Maternal & Child Health, Best Start, increasing access to child care centres and kindergartens, a new Early Childhood Development & Learning Framework 0-8, plus a range of family support services for those in need.
In addition, there are many public advocates for children whose work should not be ignored. These include Children First, Early Childhood Australia, ARACY, AIFS, HREOC, NAPCAN, Australian Community Children's Services, OzChild, Playgroup Victoria and the various State Children's Commissioners. UNICEF's Child-Friendly Cities initiative has made its mark, particularly in the City of Bendigo.
Victoria has a wealth of publicly available data on its children and families; the problem is that it is not used effectively, or it is forgotten when policy decisions are being made. Despite years of rhetoric about 'whole-of-government' approaches and better 'co-ordination' of programs, we still fail to link up what is done by different departmental 'silos' or even to see that what is done in areas such as urban planning, the labor market, public transport or even health have a major impact on the wellbeing and proper development of children. The system is, in my view, too 'top-down', with 'one-size-fits-all' approaches ignoring the very diverse nature of children's lives across what is a very 'patchwork' nation. Childhood needs to be given higher priority at every policy level and public discussion needs to try and regenerate the belief that children's wellbeing is the responsibility of every citizen, not just of parents and professional 'carers'.
It should be obvious that 'children are our future' but many adults seem interested only in their own future and little concerned with what the future holds for today's children. That mantra assumes a common underlying belief in Australia as 'us', 'our country', 'our legacy', ignoring the primacy for most people of living in the now, pursuing their own life satisfaction and letting the future take care of itself. It is a platitude not always matched by action.
The changing way in which children are viewed derives from a demographic shift and its impact on social values and priorities. Australia's population of 22.3 million now comprises only 2.4 million families with dependent children and over 24.4% of our households contain only one person. Young people are delaying marriage and child-bearing to establish themselves in careers and prolong the single lifestyle, so parenthood comes later, for fewer people, and they have fewer children than did previous generations. Australia's birth rate at 1.93 is below replacement level, and the number of childless women has increased from 27.6% in 1986 to 40.1% in 2006 (for women aged 40-44, it has increased from 9% to 15.1% childless).
This makes for a double-edged sword: those with children value them highly, invest more heavily in their development and education, while those without children see them as irrelevant and not their responsibility. Childhood seems to have become privatized, not seen as a social good, with responsibility resting largely on the parents. The community as a whole has become less centered round children and families, with urban planning often forgetful of the needs of children and much of the caring work handed over to professional child carers, teachers and other service-providers. With an ageing population (14% over age 65 and a doubling of those aged over 85) policy focus in terms of spending is in danger of shifting away from investing in the young to caring for the elderly.
Inequality has increased in Australian society, with more people now living in poverty (2.2 million in 2011) and more children living in areas of disadvantage in terms of their overall development. The geographic clustering of families with young children makes for very different policy issues from place to place, with outer suburbs and rural areas severely disadvantaged in terms of resources, facilities and services which could support parents in raising their children. There is an 'ecology' of childhood that is too often ignored.
Vinson (2007) ranked localities by disadvantage in his 'Dropping off the edge' report in 2007, showing that disadvantage is not just economic, but involves a multi-dimensional compounding of factors such as 'place effects', lack of opportunities, weak social networks and community social capital, gaps in various 'capabilities', direct social exclusion from activities, community support services, the denial of any 'voice' in decision-making, and historical trauma for groups such as refugees and Aboriginals. His indicators of locality-specific disadvantage include social distress (as in housing), health issues, community safety, skills and employment, plus education. The drift to private schooling exacerbates educational inequality, opportunity and life outcomes for a majority of already disadvantaged children. As the DEECD Strategic Plan 2012-16 puts it, school performance (despite an increase of 44% in real spending on education since 2000) is 'flatlining', because of high regional variation in access to services, increasing numbers of children who are developmentally vulnerable, and the poorer outcomes of indigenous and lower SES students.
Anne Harding (2006) used ABS statistics to examine the geographic 'clustering' of child disadvantage, defined in terms of a range of 'social exclusion' measures. These include (for low income families) : being in a sole-parent family, having no family member who has completed secondary school, having parents in blue collar occupations, or no parent employed, living in public housing, being in a government school, having no motor vehicle available, having no computer in the home, and having one parent who is non-English-speaking. This multi-faceted measure of social exclusion correlates highly with the simpler measure of low income/poverty but goes beyond it to show the multi-dimensional quality of disadvantage and social exclusion. As Argy (2007) sums it up, a child's class/family origins lead to educational inequalities, which in turn lead to employment disadvantage and inequality. Without increased resources targeted at state schools in disadvantaged areas, such inequality will only increase.
The strength of these family status effects could mean a degree of policy paralysis concerning childhood disadvantage and wellbeing, because having a job, better parental education or being separated/divorced are beyond any immediate government actions or services; they must be addressed by macro-economic and nation-wide social policy measures to reduce inequality, enhance family stability and improve children's opportunities. However, we know that certain actions do make a difference in terms of (i) preventing childhood disadvantage and its compounding effects (ii) ensuring access to a range of family support services and improving the quality of services already offered to assist all parents in bringing up children, such as maternal health, child care, schools and local amenities (iii) providing appropriate remedial/protection/family support services once problems have been identified.
The Victorian DEECD Strategic Plan for 2012-16 identifies several of these potentially positive interventions:
Investing more in early childhood and home learning environments; early intervention where there is vulnerability and disengagement; treating education as a shared responsibility (between families, learners, teachers and employers; insisting on higher standards in literacy and numeracy; building a self-improving teaching profession; offering more choice and diversity of pathways; sharing community assets for various purposes; shifting the focus from 'care' to 'development'; and moving from central bureaucratic micro-management to greater autonomy for schools and spending on 'frontline' services. The term 'engagement' seems to be central to this proposed cultural shift, one that can only be achieved by increasing local autonomy and control not just of schools but the whole range of family and children's services. The Victorian Children's Council has long argued for this sort of 'place-based' strategy.
Advocacy on behalf of children can take many forms. We can argue on the basis of children's rights - as the UN puts it, every child's right to survival, to adequate development, health, nutrition and protection, to policies and actions in their best interests, to non-discrimination on the basis of gender or race, and to participation, a voice in their own future. The rights approach has run into assertions that Australian children already have good life conditions and such a framework would undermine parental authority. Nonetheless, several States have effective Children's Commissioners and the UNICEF framework for building Child-Friendly Cities has gained traction (as in Bendigo) giving full voice to children and young people without threatening parental authority.
Other advocates for children feel on safer ground with an economic, cost-benefit argument: that we must invest in children's education and healthy development in order to ensure ongoing productivity and prosperity for Australia. This runs another risk - of favoring too narrow and vocational a curriculum, with holistic development subordinated to purely instrumental goals. In a rapidly changing digital world, it is not even clear what sort of vocational education will be most effective in an economic sense and how early in a child's schooling should such a focus be imposed. Yet the flatlining of educational outcomes in recent years suggests that money is not being invested in the right places or the right ways and better results from what is already a huge investment expenditure on children's education should be demanded.
More recently, research on the brain's growth in the early years, its plasticity and the impact of adverse life conditions such as family violence and lack of a stimulating environment have gained some traction in arguing for more investment in early childhood development, quality child care, kindergartens and a seamless transition to formal schooling. Great Britain's Sure Start program was initiated and funded as a result of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. UK's Treasury) recognizing the clear cost-benefits of investing in early childhood development. Yet even here the elephant in the room is the fact that most of that early development takes place in the family and little can be done to alter the scenarios most likely to damage children in the home. Interventions at the formal level are seen as an invasion of privacy; while parental misreading of the research leads to such excesses as Baby Einstein videos and 'Tiger Mums' putting too much pressure on children at an early age. As well, development does not stop at the early years and ongoing investment is required at every stage of a child's life.
In Victoria, it should be noted that our rhetoric about spending on the early years is not matched in real funding terms. DEECD tables given for numbers and costs for various sectors of the 'education market' show a clear discrepancy between the Plan's emphasis on early childhood and actual spending at present :
School education $7469.3m 850,000 students = $8787 per student
Higher education & skills $2437.7m 890,000 learners = $2738 per learner
Early childhood developt $507m 400,000 children = $1267 per child
Operating & support services $1133m 2,140,000 'clients' = $529 per 'client' in 'education.'
It should also be noted that the Victorian Government spends $533 million per year on statutory child protection, yet only $170 million on positive child and family support services. The question needs to be asked, why are these services (mostly provided by contracted welfare agencies outside the Department of Human Services) not made more accountable for the fact that 70% of children have been reported previously; 2000 children were the subject of more than 10 reports; and the rate for Aboriginal children is 221 per 1000 (i.e. 27%) compared with the overall rate for Victorian children of 32.7 per 1000 (3%)? Such children are not in fact being protected, but the money continues to be allocated for 'child protection'.
Whatever our approach to child advocacy may be we cannot move forward without better understanding of the social changes affecting children in families and their importance to the wider community.
There are three main points to be made about children in Australia (and Victoria) today:
That said, there are several trends which can be identified in the demographics and the sociological literature which mean family and community life for most children is different (not necessarily worse) from what it was for previous generations of children. These include (relevant statistics in italics):
Total households - 8,556,000 Total families - 6,400,000
Families with children - 2,367,000 Couple families with children - 79.3%
Lone-parent families - 20.8% (3% lone fathers)
Families with one child under 5 - 47.7%; Children under 5 in one-parent fams.- 19.0%
Median age Males at first marriage- 29.6 years; Median age Females - 27.9 years
Births to mothers under age 20 - 3.8%; Births to mothers over 35 - 23.1%; Births outside marriage - 33.8%
In 2010, 24,853 divorces (49.5%) involved children under age 18 (fewer than in 1990)
Median duration marriage to separation - 8.8 years
Median duration marriage to divorce - 12.3 (was 10.2 years in 1989)
Joint applications for divorced increased from 14% in 1990 to 38% in 2010
23.8% of all Victorians and 6.6% of Victorian children were born overseas
20.4% of all Victorians and 16.8% of Victorian children speak a language other than English at home
0.6% of Victoria's population identifies as Indigenous (approx. 30,000 people)
Under our Skilled Migrant intake, there has been a six-fold increase in Chinese over the past decade and a four-fold increase in Indian migrants. They cluster in the main cities, 90% living in Sydney or Melbourne, more Chinese in Sydney, more Indians in Melbourne. 43% of the Indian-born are couple families with children, so are 38% of the Chinese.
Skilled migrants have three times more higher degrees compared with Australian-born, mostly in management, commerce, engineering and technology. In the IT industry alone, 11% of all employees are Chinese, 14% Indian and only 3% Australian-born.
But the poorer groups of immigrants, from African countries, from war zones such as the Sudan, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan tend to cluster in certain suburbs, the outer west where housing is cheaper but jobs harder to get, and both their education level and language skills are poorer than the Chinese and Indians.. The ethnic mix in some suburbs is volatile: Cabramatta for example 133 nationalities and 70 languages, with 31% born in Vietnam and 28% born in Australia. Springvale in Melbourne's outer east comprises 21% Vietnamese, 29% Catholic and 29% Buddhist.
The VCAMS 'Snapshot' 10.2 (June 2012) reports that 14.1% of Metropolitan and 16.0% of Non-metro parents have concerns about their child's behavior, more for boys (18.7%) than for girls (11.1%); 26.8% for Aboriginal children; 25% for those living with only one parent; and more for the most disadvantaged (17.6%) than for the least disadvantaged (11.9%).
Both parents employed - 62.6% Neither parent employed - 5.1%
Work intensity has increased: the average hours worked for fathers is 50 hours, for mothers 24.
82% of employed couples with children under 15 report feeling 'rushed or hurried', the reasons given being the difficulty of juggling work and family, the real-time demands of family life and simply having 'too many demands' on their time.
Children under 3 using formal care - 30.3%; informal care - 29.9%; Children 3-4 using formal care - 43.2%; informal care - 32.5%; Median (combined) weekly hours care - 15
Victorian kindergarten participation rate - 98%, but varies by geographic area and ethnicity and contact is often not continued beyond the first two years.
In 2008, 600,000 Australian children were in grandparent care, far outstripping other forms of childcare including long day care and after school care. (Jenkins, 2009)
Total Australian population (2012) - 22.3 million. Total children - 3,978,392
Median age increased by 4.7 years over past two decades - now 37.1 years
Under 15s decreased from 21.9% in 1991 to 18.8% in 2011 (2.040,848 males, 1,937,544 females)
15-64 year-olds stable at 67.7%; 65+ increased from 11.3% to 13.7% (total 3,053,084)
85+ age group doubled since 1991
20-24 year-olds living with parents 48.1%
25-34 year-olds living with parents 13.0%
Mean weekly equivalent disposable income:
Lo income - $429; Middle - $721; High - $1,704; All h'holds - $848
Couple with dependent children - $1,996; One parent h'hold - $996
Mean weekly housing costs (2010):
No mortgage - $35; With mortgage - $408;
Renters - State authority - $119; Private landlord - $305
Close to half Australia's adults are overweight or obese
23% Australian children are overweight or obese
- 63% participate in sports and/or dancing (56% for boys 12-14 years)
- Girls 5% less than boys; disadvantaged children 9% less; NES background 9% less; both parents NES 24% less; if not use internet at home 19% less participation.
- Children spend 40+ hours/fortnight watching TV/DVDs 10% less; but those who watch TV/DVDs 20-39 hours/fortnight are just as likely to participate in sport and dancing as all other children.
- Majority (85%) use internet for education and schoolwork
- Second most popular use is playing games online (boys 69% cf. girls 78%; more use by younger children cf. older - 59% of 12-14 year-olds)
- Social networking use is increasing - 26% girls, 19% boys visit networking sites, 12-14 year-olds highest users (48%)
In sum, children today live in a world where parents are older, siblings fewer, with increasing numbers of the aged and 'solo' young adults who may not see children's needs as a social priority. They also live in a society where income inequality and the private/public school divide increasingly affect life chances and where market values permeate family lifestyles and reflect consumer interests. None of this means today's children are 'worse' than previous generations, but their socialization through parenting, schooling and community are different. Many of our institutions (such as schools and workplaces) are still based on assumptions about family life that are outdated and new media technology has taken on a new role in the social learning and development of children. Both policies and programs need to take such changes into account if we are to ensure children's chances of reaching competent adulthood are satisfied.
Amato, P. & A. Booth (2007), A Generation at Risk: Growing up in an Era of Family Upheaval, Harvard University Press, Cambridge
Carr-Gregg, M. (2007), Real Wired Child: What Parents Need to Know About Kids Online, Penguin, Melbourne
Edgar, D. (2001), The Patchwork Nation: Rethinking Government, Rebuilding Community, HarperCollins, Sydney
Edgar, D. (2005), The War Over Work: The future of work and family, Melbourne University Press
Edgar, D. & P. Edgar (2008), The New Child: In search of smarter grown-ups, Wilkinson Publishing, Melbourne
Edgar, D. (2012), Modern Technology and Childhood Learning, a background Discussion Paper for the Victorian Children's Council
Family Matters, articles on child and family policy and research, 1980-2012, passim, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne
Gardner, H. (2011), Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, Basic Books, NY
Jenkins, Bridget (2009), Grandparent childcare in Australia: A literature review, www.uws.edu.au/-data/assets/pdf-file/0009/156339/Jen
Kirkpatrick, D. (2010), The Facebook Effect, Simon & Schuster, NY
Kolbert, Elizabeth (2012), 'Spoiled rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?', The New Yorker, 2 July
Premier's Children's Advisory Committee Report, Joining the Dots: A New Vision for Victoria's Children (2004), Victorian Department of Premier & Cabinet
Shonkoff, J. & D. Phillips (2000), From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, National Academy Press, Washington