The expansion of the ground-breaking Connected Beginnings program, which helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children prepare for school, has been showcased at Early Childhood Australia’s Reconciliation Symposium in Darwin.
Connected Beginnings is for children from birth to school age, and pregnant women. Through it, children can get steady, wrap-around support. This helps them meet the learning and development milestones needed for a smooth start to school.
The program integrates local support services for families, including early childhood, maternal and child health, preschools, councils, and government agencies.
Connected Beginnings is making measurable gains for Closing the Gap, helping more Indigenous families get involved in culturally safe early childhood services. The Australian Government program began in 2016 and today operates at 24 sites across every state and territory.
An evaluation of the program showed an increase in education and care attendance of 12 hours per child from 2018 to 2020. Buoyed by the program’s early success, the government is extending Connected Beginnings to another 25 sites by 2025 at a cost of $81.8 million.
Assistant Director of the program at the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Terese Christoff-Smith, told the symposium that a strength of the program is how it adapts to the needs of individual communities.
Terese said each site was led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who created action plans to eliminate barriers that children and families faced in connecting to services, including child care.
“Grant money is used to set up backbone teams and for operating expenses, the practicalities of connecting families to services, developing resources and events, and for training,” Terese explained.
Terese described three success stories out of the Northern Territory.
In Alice Springs, the project has established Child Friendly Alice, which brings community organisations, government and individuals together to address childhood wellbeing. Together they improved service integration and the cultural competency of local early learning services. This has resulted in greater Aboriginal representation, leadership and workforce. At Tennant Creek, the project is focused on language, culture and parenting strengths for child development. Participants are establishing the Mappul (together) Intergenerational Working Group to ensure intergenerational knowledge is passed down and emphasised in early childhood services and programs.
On Galiwin’ku, an island off the coast of Arnhem Land, the community is setting up the Junior Learning on Country initiative for programs and services involving children aged 0-8. This will put Yolŋu culture and language at the heart of early years learning, fostering a stronger identity for Galiwin’ku children. The Northern Territory Indigenous Languages and Cultures curriculum is being used across the Yolŋu knowledge areas of language, health, natural environment, traditional lore, kinship system, education and wellbeing.
Project leader Lesley Richardson and Groote Eylandt community members Jodie Lalara and Roxanne Lalara co-presented with Terese at the symposium. They spoke about the work to embed their culture in services and programs in their community in the Top End. This includes the Anindilyakwa language being taught by local teachers. Terese said the expanded Connected Beginnings program had the potential to support up to 18,900 or 20% of all Indigenous children in Australia.
The initiative runs by invitation.
The expansion includes greater employment opportunities for local people, more extensive community engagement, and sophisticated data collection, monitoring and evaluation. The Reconciliation Symposium attracted speakers and attendees from across the country interested in the theme “Advancing reconciliation in early childhood education and care”.
The department funded travel scholarships for 10 educators from communities across Australia to attend the two-day symposium.
Closing the Gap: Lesley Richardson, Jodie Lalara and Roxanne Lalara co-presented with Terese, explaining how under Connected Beginnings their culture was being embedded in services and programs on Groote Eylandt in the Top End.