Australian students need improved parental engagement

| March 14, 2013

Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth CEO, Dr Lance Emerson, discusses the latest evidence-based report on the wellbeing of young Australians and outlines the necessary strategies to improve our educational performance on a global scale.

While most Australian’s perceive the wellbeing of our children to be good overall, inequalities associated with socioeconomic status, locality and remoteness, and disability compromise optimal wellbeing. In the area of education, Australia’s position is slipping against international benchmarks, with a significant gap between top and bottom when it comes to student performance.

The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth’s (ARACY) latest report card, The Wellbeing of Young Australians, will be released today, the second in a series of reports that present an international picture for the nation’s performance against a range of child and youth wellbeing measures.

The data included in the report provides a snapshot of how Australia shapes up against other OECD countries, highlighting areas where we excel and where we fall short. This second report focuses on the concerns of children, young people families, and demonstrates emerging trends through comparative data from the previous 2008 report.

Australia ranks in the bottom third of OECD countries on a number of education-related measures, including: participation in early learning, science and reading performance at a year four level, and the number of 15-19 year olds in education. Maths performance in years four and eight is middle-ranked, as is science performance in year eight. Reading performance at 15 years is ranked as sixth out of 34 OECD countries.

The only learning rankings where Australia places in the top five are parental literacy activities with children before they start school. When it comes to reading with children, Aussie parents are ranked second when compared to parents in 22 other countries and, with regard to tertiary qualifications, we are ranked third out of 25 countries.

Perhaps more telling is the fact Australia is ranked 21 out of 34 for educational resource deprivation, 22 out of 25 for jobless families, and 16 out of 29 for child poverty.

If Australia is serious about lifting our international performance across core educational rankings, we need to implement preventative strategies that are evidence-based and cost effective. We need to recognise the role of parents as a child’s first and most important teacher, and the necessary partnership between parents and schools.

Most importantly, we need more evidence-based preventive actions well before school, to optimise the peri-natal and very early years that are critical to a child’s development. Programs such as sustained nurse home visiting show the potential of such evidence-based action.

In 2012, ARACY undertook the research and consultation phase of The Nest: a national plan for child and youth wellbeing. The extensive literature review, and the wide-ranging online and face-to-face consultation of 3,700 children, young people and families, revealed there is alignment between what children and youth perceive to be important, and what the evidence shows is needed to improve wellbeing.

Two key recommendations that have emerged from The Nest focus on improving schooling retention rates and enhancing parental engagement.

Keeping young people in school past the age of 15 requires attention to the ‘middle years’, from age nine to 14, a crucial time in young people’s development. If children are adequately supported in these middle years they will be more likely to remain in education and training. Attention should be given to student-focused, effective strategies, such as mentoring to those ‘at-risk’ of disengagement.

I believe improved parental engagement and support for learning and education is the missing piece of the puzzle in education reform. Parental and community engagement in the learning process is known to have an impact on children’s educational outcomes greater even than their teachers and school environment. There are some very specific strategies that both parents and teachers can utilise to greatly enhance the child’s educational outcomes.

The only way Australia’s children will perform at worldleading standards is through the delivery of evidence-based, prevention-focused interventions that are implemented at the stages of early childhood. I am concerned that, while there are a number evidence-based interventions currently being implemented in Australia, they are not to the scale and intensity required. We need to reduce the guesswork and good intention and improve these interventions so they can become effective measures.

The Nest will be a resource for policy-makers, practitioners and governments to identify ‘best buys’ and enable collective action to improve child and youth wellbeing. Only by working together can we start to improve child and youth wellbeing and change our relatively poor educational results.

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Lance Emerson

Dr Lance Emerson is the CEO of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY). Lance has a background in primary health care and quality improvement, with a focus on ‘joined-up’ solutions to applying best evidence in addressing health inequities. He has worked in senior Government positions at both the State and Federal level, as a private consultant, as executive of a national member based health organisation, and has been appointed to numerous Ministerial committees and working groups. He is a member of the National Children’s Roundtable, the National Child Information Advisory Group of the Australian Government, and is also on the Board of the Climate and Health Alliance. His passion and focus is on progressing collaborative evidence based action to improve the health and wellbeing of young Australians.