Efforts to boost low levels of early childhood literacy in Bendigo are chronically underfunded, putting the city at a serious social and economic disadvantage, the head of one such program has warned.
John Bonnice is the manager of the federal government’s Communities for Children initiative in Bendigo and says local services are well short of the roughly $1 million needed to implement a plan to bring the city’s children into line with their peers across the state.
“We only have $60,000 to put to it,” he says.
“Our aim is to have every child in Bendigo receive a book a month in the first five years of life, now to implement that in Bendigo would be $200,000 a year – we’re struggling to get $20,000.”
Mr Bonnice says the early years are critical in developing the basic skills which set children up for life and if a sustainable funding model is not found, the consequences of Bendigo continuing to lag behind could be dire for the city and its children.
“If children don’t have well-developed language and literacy skills by the time they start school, the evidence shows that children will struggle at school and later in life so it’s essential we get the basics right, but it means we’ve got to invest in it,” he says.
“We’re struggling to get funds to keep these programs going and we shouldn’t be struggling in the most basic things like getting books to our children.
“It’s not acceptable, the community should not accept this, our leadership should not accept this.”
Bendigo Senior Secondary College principal Dale Pearce backed the call for “appropriate investment” in early childhood education as “absolutely critical to achievement and engagement in senior secondary school”.
Mr Pearce said among students who struggled to maintain their connection with education in later years, the most common denominator was low levels of literacy.
“If we could focus on getting one thing right to lift educational achievement in Australia in the long term it would be early childhood,” he said.
“Families play an important role because they need to set expectations, encourage and support their children [but] governments need to invest appropriately in early childhood education.”
Not only would improved literacy levels boost children’s performance at school and later in life, but Mr Bonnice says his organisation also sees tackling language and literacy as “a real game-changer” in addressing serious issues with the number of child protection issues that go unreported in the region.
“What’s the preventative work that needs to be done in that space? One of the solutions is around investing in children’s language and literacy because it’s about the connection between the parent and the child, the parent is the first educator, we need to resource the parent as the first educator,” he says.
And while in one sense the solution is easy – more funding – Mr Bonnice says it’s not as simple as going cap in hand to government, urging the whole community to take responsibility for its children’s future.
“We need to get community service organisations, service groups, local government, state government, to be working together around a practical plan,” he says.
“We need to look at a sustainable funding model for this, we need to look at investment that is sustainable, absolutely, we can’t keep relying on donations or one-off fundraising to keep that going, it’s something we should be doing in Bendigo as an ongoing way of supporting our children.”
And aside from the educational return, John Bonnice said investment in early childhood education also served to bolster the city’s economic prospects.
“If you invest a dollar in early childhood development, the economic return is nine, so apart from the social outcomes for children there’s an economic benefit,” he said.
State and federal governments defend funding arrangements
The state and federal governments have defended their funding arrangements in Bendigo, following revelations of a million-dollar shortfall in money for early childhood literacy programs.
A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Social Services, which funds Communities for Children in Bendigo, said the Australian government had provided $260 million this year for family and children’s programs, including about $1 million for programs in central Victoria.
She said the department had also funded a number of other services in the region, including the home interaction program for parents and youngsters, or HIPPY, which operates from a site in Bendigo.
“The department works closely with our providers to monitor need and demand in communities,” she said.
“Communities for Children facilitating partners can broker services based on need locally, including early childhood literacy programs, as well as parenting support, home visiting, and other supports to promote child wellbeing.”
She said the HIPPY program was a two year, home-based parenting and early childhood learning program that supported parents and carers of children aged four and five years and also supported children’s pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills.
Meanwhile, Victorian Minister for Families and Children, Jenny Mikakos, said the state government was delivering “new and unprecedented support” for Bendigo families through its $202.1 million Education State Early Childhood Reform Plan, announced in this year’s budget.
“This reform plan will include expanding the Enhanced Maternal Child Health Service across Victoria – around 700 additional families in Bendigo can now access critical support – as well as the rollout of supported playgroups to the Bendigo area for the first time,” she said.
“Our Roadmap for Reform – backed up by $168 million in the Victorian budget 2017/18 – is shifting the focus to prevention and early intervention for vulnerable families and children.”
The state government has also provided $55.3 million in new school readiness funding and $22.8 million to improve the quality of all services delivering a kindergarten program in Victoria.