Changing children's lives

By Tamara Heath

A unique partnership between an early education provider and two University of Melbourne economists has the potential to change the lives of more than 45,000 at risk children across Australia.

When the Children’s Protection Society (CPS) launched their innovative early education program for vulnerable infants and toddlers in Melbourne’s north in 2010, they knew it had life-changing potential.

But they also knew they needed a rigorous evaluation process to determine how investment in the crucial preschool years could reset the life trajectory of vulnerable children and save future governmental spending on education, health and justice interventions.

Enter the economists – the University of Melbourne’s Professor Jeff Borland and Dr Yi-Ping Tseng – who jumped at the chance to influence the policy agenda in such an important area.

Funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage grant, the researchers are undertaking impact and cost-benefit analyses of CPS’s Early Years Education Program (EYEP).

The program is targeted at vulnerable and at risk preschool children and is designed to ensure they meet their full potential and arrive at school educationally and developmentally equal to their peers, with EYEP participants receiving 25 hours a week of care and education for 50 weeks a year over three years.

Research shows that children who are exposed to early childhood trauma and neglect tend to start school at least two years behind their peers and never catch up.

It has also been shown that any deficiencies in cognitive and social skills that develop before the age of five are likely to become the basis of not only low educational attainment, but also unemployment, teen pregnancy and involvement in crime in later life.

Professor Borland and Dr Tseng are working with CPS as part of a multi-disciplinary team to run a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of the program, with EYEP’s impact assessed at different points during the child’s participation, as well as six months after they start school.

The trial is the first of its kind for an Australian early years and childcare intervention program and has two components.

The impact analysis will compare outcomes such as socio-emotional, cognitive and language development skills, physical and mental health, parent-child relationships and parental health of the 72 trial participants compared with a control group.

The cost-benefit analysis will compare the cost of the program per child with the costs associated with those in the control group, who are referred to the usual support services.

With 90 per cent of brain development occurring in the first three years of life, former CPS board chairperson and the founder of the program, Dr Alice Hill, said for the past 40 years, early education experts had known that the ages from birth to three were key to a child’s development.

“But, to move from science to practice you need evidence-based research and, to receive funding, you have to demonstrate the value,” Dr Hill said.

“We expect this program will be transformative for the children and their families.”

For Professor Borland and Dr Tseng, working as part of a multi-disciplinary team that includes experts in infant mental health, early childhood education and social work to enhance the knowledge and understanding of children from vulnerable backgrounds has been a stimulating and rewarding experience.

“Being able to work on an evaluation of a new program for such an important group in our society is an opportunity we have both valued highly,” Professor Borland said.

The research project has already drawn interest from other national childcare providers, with the first-year results, due late 2017, eagerly anticipated.

But, it had not been without its challenges.

“It’s tricky and time-consuming research,” Professor Borland said.

“You can’t underestimate the complexities of bringing so many disciplines together and working with a not-for-profit organisation to sustain funding and commitment through changes of management over so many years.”

The research project is expected to run until 2020.

Want to read more about research being undertaken at the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Business and Economics? Click here.