With every interest group clamouring to get on the narrowly cast federal election agenda, it's perhaps no surprise that the fortunes of our nation's youngest aren't featuring too prominently. And yet the evidence has been around for some time that public investment in children's wellbeing can actually make a significant difference, certainly more impact than governments will ever wield in global financial markets, in spite of their transfixed obsession with the economy shibboleth.
Fiona Stanley's Australian of the Year tenure in 2003 - coinciding with the release of her jointly authored Children of the Lucky Country? – brought attention to an issue that ought to strike fear into the heart of any civilization, namely that all indications are showing we're raising the first generation in this nation's history whose average life expectancy will be less than their parents. Dubbing it 'Modernity's Paradox' – ie where increasing wealth and opportunity has also resulted in increased social differences and more problems for children and youth, including increases in asthma, obesity, diabetes, child abuse, binge-drinking, drug abuse and mental health problems – there are disturbingly increasing signs that the shock value of this paradox is losing traction. Not only is this obvious in the despair that still largely pervades efforts to improve indigenous children's wellbeing (although there has been notable progress in some specific areas) but it is apparent too in the widespread surprise that greets me whenever I present on this topic, mostly to people who work day in, day out with children and young people.
Of course, how to turn around some of these key indicators of children's wellbeing is no easy task in a society with growing diversity of needs spread across the population and where children and young people's voices struggle to be heard. The Gonski reforms are grounded in a sound rationale targeting place-based disadvantage but single sector responses – even in one as influential as education – are insufficient if they're not accompanied by complementary approaches scaffolding children's development. Griffith University's highly regarded Pathways to Prevention project is testament that such a collaborative approach can not only make a real difference to children's lives but has sound longitudinal data to back it up. Other place-based initiatives such as the largely unheralded federally funded Communities for Children program – also focusing on low socio-economic communities – has been the catalyst for a number of encouraging partnerships between community services that rarely if ever crossed each other's paths. But with governments around the world in serious debt, there is in reality little option but to work more creatively and entrepreneurially in local communities to advance the needs of those most disadvantaged. This demands a fresh, unbridled way of thinking that is committed to being judged on long-term results, or in short, What Works (interestingly, the name given to a new network of 6 independent centres in the UK that will gather and share the most robust evidence on what works to inform government spending of more than £200 billion in public services.)
How, for example, can we collectively overcome the multitude of driving forces that have resulted in the average 6 year old spending up to 7 hours per day in front of some form of screen and less than 5 minutes per day engaging in informal play? Transport advocates will push for more walk to school options, environmentalists more access to nature and parks, physical education for more opportunity to participate in sport, and so on but perhaps a more confronting contributing factor is Australia's long-standing leadership of the highest average working hours per week across all OECD countries.
These challenges and more lie behind another Fiona Stanley-inspired creation, the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY) and in particular its action plan, The Nest which aims to align efforts to improve the wellbeing of Australia's 0-24 year olds. The Nest is about collectively identifying what it is we should be aiming to achieve for children and young people, the most effective prevention focused and evidence-informed ways to achieve this change, and how we can best align our collective effort to achieve it. It is fundamentally based on the understanding that governments alone can't meet all the needs of children and young people – and the significant issues facing young Australians can't be improved by one 'magic' program, one policy, or one organisation working in isolation.
The Nobel Prize winning economist and celebrated prevention and early intervention advocate James Heckman has long championed the value of a dollar spent at the top of the cliff saving hundreds at the bottom. It's a seductive but ultimately improbable thought to imagine a political party that might run with such rational and logical thinking and champion children's wellbeing as the nation's number one priority.
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