Investing time, effort and resources in children’s early years – when their brains are developing rapidly – brings lifelong benefits to them and to the whole community.  Results from a national survey of childhood development shows a dramatic improvement in the school readiness of Benalla’s children following a concerted community effort.

Benalla professionals working in the early years arena are ‘over the moon’ about the recently released 2018 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) data. In 2015 Benalla ranked among the worst in the state with one-third of children deemed developmentally vulnerable on commencing school and consequently ‘not ready to learn’.  In an amazing result for a disadvantaged community, Benalla’s 2018 data indicates that less than one-quarter are now deemed vulnerable.

The AEDC is conducted every three years and covers more than 300,000 children nationwide. It assesses the development of children commencing school across five ‘domains’ or key areas: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; communication skills and general knowledge. Benalla is now trending positive on every domain, with two areas – physical health and wellbeing, and communication skills and general knowledge – better than state and national figures.

Executive Officer of Tomorrow Today, Pat Claridge, attributes the dramatic improvement to strong collaboration across the Benalla community. “Following the release of the 2015 results, Tomorrow Today convened a forum in partnership with Dept Education and Training and Benalla Rural City Council.  This attracted over 50 early years professionals to look at what could be done to better support Benalla families with young children so that they start school ‘ready to learn,” Ms Claridge said.

Research shows that children who are not switched on to learning at school commencement often fall behind their peers and in the majority of cases, these children never catch up.

Following the Forum, members of the Benalla Early Years Network formed a working party to develop a four-year action plan specifically focussed on improving domains measured by the AEDC. Central to the plan is the delivery of the Parents Early Education Partnership (PEEP) program, a UK initiative that has been shown to be particularly successful in improving educational outcomes for children in disadvantaged areas. PEEP works with families and their children from birth, helping parents and carers develop their skills and knowledge as their child’s first and most important educator and providing fun learning activities to develop pre-literacy and pre-numeracy.  PEEP is delivered in Benalla by Tomorrow Today Foundation, supported by Benalla Health staff, Benalla Rural City Maternal Child Health, Benalla Library and many other agencies and businesses who provide free professional support.  A wonderful group of community volunteers also assist with the program. Over 200 Benalla families with children aged 0 to 5 attend PEEP annually.

Pre-school attendance is also a central pillar in reducing developmental vulnerability, with 100% participation being an important objective in the action plan.

Whilst the 2018 AEDC results are heartening, Ms Claridge feels there is no room for complacency. “As a community we need to work even harder over the next few years to ensure that all Benalla children start school primed to learn so that they can enjoy a bright and happy future.  It is not acceptable that children who are born into financial or social hardship should be further disadvantaged by a lack of success at school,” she concluded.

For enquiries about the PEEP program, contact Tomorrow Today on 57621211.