Investing in the Early Years: Interview with Professor Fiona Stanley AC

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Professor Fiona Stanley AC

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Professor Fiona Stanley AC Australian of the Year 2003, Patron of the Telethon Kids Institute and renowned paediatric epidemiologist, is a passionate advocate for research and families.

Neatly combed hair, over-sized uniforms, new backpacks and nervous smiles – the first day of school is exciting, gut-wrenching and the start of a grand adventure.

We want our children to have the best start to life, and according to Professor Fiona Stanley AC,  collecting data during that first year of school will show us the way. That’s why she started the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC).

It is a triennial census that collects data on children’s development during their first year of full-time education to help schools, communities and policy makers identify what is working well and where services and resources are needed.

“The AEDC provides a snapshot of children’s development from 0 through to 5 years of age,” says Professor Stanley.

“It is not an individual test for a child, but a vital population measure of child development. It can be used to evaluate whether Australian communities are investing effectively in maternal and child services.”

The census measures children’s development across five domains: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge.

“The important thing about the AEDC is that it’s a population measure to describe, in this particular community – and it could be a geographic community, a school or a population sub-group – that a portion of children are vulnerable and hence possibly not ready for school,” Professor Stanley says.

Since the AEDC began in 2009 there has been a significant improvement in children’s readiness for school, with fewer children falling behind in the skills that are crucial to succeeding at school.

In 2018, the majority of Australian children were doing well on each of the five domains, with the data showing a significant decrease in the level of vulnerability on one or more domains from 23.6 per cent in 2009 to 21.7 per cent in 2018.

Australia is the only country in the world where the entire population of children have their development routinely measured when they start school, but the inspiration came from Canada.

“I was invited by Professor Clyde Hertzman to Vancouver in 1999, where he presented their Early Development Index (EDI), measuring children’s health and development as a tool to advocate for the early years,” says Professor Stanley.

“I brought the Index, as the AEDC was known then, from Canada to Australia. Dr Brett Hart and Sally Brinkman first used the EDI in Western Australia, which showed it was an effective population tool, and then we expanded it to communities nationwide.

“The Australian Government decided to fund it, with a contribution from Shell Australia allowing the Institute to partner with the Centre for Community Child Health and continue to roll the instrument out across Australia. It’s been going ever since, with funding from the government.”

At a cost of around $29 million for each AEDC cycle, the government works with state and territory governments to implement the AEDC across Australia. The next collection of this valuable information begins in May for the 2021 Census.

As the founding Director of the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth, and now its Patron, Professor Stanley is a passionate advocate for research and families.

She is thrilled the data is being put to good use, including by groups in South Australia’s Mid Murray region – an area which has been revealed by the census as having the state’s second highest proportion of developmentally vulnerable children.

“A great example of a community response to the AEDC is the Mid Murray Family Connections (MMFC) initiative,” says Professor Stanley.

“The AEDC data showed there was an increase in children’s vulnerability on a few of the domains, so they set up new services for children and families in the region including literacy programs, mental health workshops and promoting maternal wellbeing.”

The MMFC’s efforts paid off. The AEDC results for 2015 and 2018 for the Mid Murray community show a significant decrease in development vulnerability and the MMFC has been recognised with awards for its work in achieving positive outcomes for children in the region.

Teachers contributing to the 2021 AEDC from May will be supported by relief teachers funded by the Government. Funding will also support data collection and state and territory coordination. The data collection is undertaken between May-July and the findings will be available in early 2022.

Early childhood educators, practitioners, policy makers and researchers will this month have the opportunity to come together at the virtual 2021 AEDC National Conference, hosted by the Telethon Kids Institute. From 15 March to 19 March, attendees can discuss the AEDC data and how to improve the lives of children and families. Registrations are now open and will be accepted up until 15 March 2021.

“Children are the future,” says Professor Stanley. “It can sound trite, but it’s true. The most important investment for any nation is investment in early childhood environments, so our children can grow up healthy and well. The AEDC is crucial to that.”

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