Some children come to school knowing their alphabet. They can count to 10, write their name, tell you their favourite book and are read to every night.

For other children, the first time they see a book is the day they start school. These children have to be shown that a book opens, and taught how to sit and hold it and how to turn the pages. Many will have to learn English while they’re learning to read.

Any teacher will tell you, children are at different stages when they start school. The experiences of their first years are crucial in determining their readiness for school; if they can hold a pencil, sit and listen and concentrate. A child’s family and social background are the most important influences in how well they do at school.

As National Catholic Education Commission deputy chairman Brian Croke puts it: “Students start off school unequal; they don’t become unequal at school or through school. They might become more unequal through the sort of school they’re in, the resources of the school, but they’re starting school unequal. The real inequity happens before school.”

Pediatrician Frank Oberklaid, founding director of the Centre for Community Child Health at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, puts it even more strongly: “If children are behind the eight ball when they start school, it’s too late,” he says.

They spend the rest of their school years trying to catch up, and many never do. We know absolutely that learning starts at birth. The first five years before kids get to school are probably the most important years in terms of education. But we’re still having a debate about access and quality of childcare. It’s crazy.”

Oberklaid was one of the architects of the Australian Early Development Index, rolled out nationally in 2009. The AEDI, which will be conducted every three years by the federal government, assesses every child in their first year of school in five areas of development: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills (school-based); communication skills and general knowledge. It starkly displays the communities housing children who are falling behind developmentally for their age when they start school.

A paper presented by Croke at the annual conference of the Australian College of Educators last month looked at those communities where 5 per cent or more of children were struggling (the term used is vulnerable) in their language and cognitive abilities, necessary in developing literacy skills.

Croke matched those areas with schools performing substantially below average in national reading tests for Year 5 students. The results were a stark reminder of the social divide in our nation; the schools with the lowest scores were predominantly in areas with the vulnerable children. The pattern holds across Australia. After at least six years of formal education, the children who started school behind their peers have made little progress in catching up.

Croke says the data confirms what teachers knew instinctively but it is the first time schools and governments have had it in black-and-white numbers. Between the national literacy and numeracy tests, NAPLAN (National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy) and the AEDI, Croke says we have created a national data infrastructure to monitor a child’s learning and readiness for school, and their improvements across time in school.

“You can see at a glance what you might know generally speaking, how important geography is in all of this,” he says. “It’s not even government and non-government; public and private schools are side by side. What matters is where your parents live.”

Croke says the information shows the task asked of schools, to overcome social disadvantage, is too great.

He argues little is done to level the playing field before children start school, with the onus placed almost solely on schools.

“We have been relying too much on the school alone and the data says we can’t go on with that,” he says. “As a community, we need to get more serious and more systematic about the way we integrate at the preschool, at the community level. This is the community challenge, to integrate education and family development and health.”

The counter-argument is that what schools have been doing is not working or that the concept of a school needs to change. Realising this, some schools are redefining themselves.

At St Albans in Melbourne’s northwestern suburbs, Dianne Blake, the principal of the Sacred Heart Primary School, oversees a school that acts as a community hub for its parents. The school co-ordinates a range of services: from an on-site psychologist to hospital care, from speech pathologists and occupational therapists to advice on renting a house.

About 30 per cent of its students were assessed on the AEDI as being vulnerable in one developmental area and 40 per cent were at risk in two areas. About one-third of the school’s students were born overseas and 90 per cent of parents are migrants or refugees, with one-third of students coming from Africa. More than four in five students speak English as a second language.

But, by Year 3, students have caught up. In the national literacy and numeracy tests, the Sacred Heart students are above the national average in literacy and at the average in numeracy. By Year 5, they are further ahead.

Blake attributes the school’s success to its relationships with students and their families, learning about the students and the school’s teaching practices.

“The first time children put school bags on their backs to come to school, they come with different experiences and tools in their backpack. It’s really important we understand what’s in the child’s school bag and their different experiences,” she says.

“Usually we’ve had parents who are literate in their own language but some of these families never had the opportunity to go to school themselves. That’s new in Australia. We have to be conscious of what we expect of parents and that we work closely with parents to help them understand what we’re trying to achieve.”

The Catholic Education Office in Melbourne was involved in the pilot trials of the AEDI and Dave Huggins, assistant director of student services, says he saw immediately the potential of the index.

Huggins likens children starting school to their families sailing a boat through the heads of Port Phillip Bay, with one headland being health and early childhood services, the other headland being education “and a lot of water flows in between; in fact surges between the two headlands”.

“We’re trying to find a way to link both headlands. The AEDI builds a bridge between the two, enables us to construct something between these two vital headlands,” he says.

The office has used the AEDI profile of its schools’ communities to develop services aiming to supplement the deficiencies in some children’s backgrounds, to help them start school better prepared, employing allied health workers and others to work in schools as required.

But to more effectively level the playing field, children need the help before they reach the school gate, which is about early childhood education.

Oberklaid believes the origins of childcare as a women’s workforce policy — providing babysitting to enable women to return to the workforce — is at least 50 years out of date and has to be discarded, and the early years incorporated into an integrated school system that starts from birth.

Research into brain development shows that the experiences and environment in the first years of life affect the way the brain develops.

It literally affects brain circuitry,” Oberklaid says. “As people grow older, those circuits in the brain stabilise and become much less plastic. If you try to learn a new skill as an adult, whether a language or a musical instrument, it’s very difficult and the reason is the brain’s plasticity decreases over time. It’s like the foundations of a house. If you take shortcuts, like use cheaper cement, everything that follows is potentially at risk.

“You can go back and fix the foundations, but it’s expensive and difficult and never as good as if you got it right at the beginning. And the longer you leave it, the harder it gets, the more complicated it gets.”

Oberklaid argues that if governments designed a school system from scratch today, based on what is known about child development and learning, it would look nothing like the schools children attend. He envisages a model where primary school stretches from birth to about Year 3 or 4, a middle school to about Year 8 or 9, and a senior school.

Interestingly, parents resist the idea of early learning. A survey of attitudes to the concept of early learning a few years ago found that parents disliked the idea. But Oberklaid says early learning seeks to provide those experiences children from middle-class and educated families grow up with: good nutrition; protection from infection and injury; a stimulating, language-rich environment, and being read to regularly.

And highly trained staff. “If half the nation’s primary school teachers were untrained or unqualified and teaching classes every day, there would be a national outcry. Yet half the nation’s childcare workers are untrained and the main debate is we can’t afford it.”

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Source: The Australian –