New report shines light on higher rates of child developmental vulnerability in rural, remote and regional areas

The percentage of children experiencing developmental vulnerability before they start school is significantly higher in remote and outer regional areas than in cities, according to new analysis of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) data released by The Front Project today.

While the recently released AEDC data showed more than 63,000 Australian children were assessed as developmentally vulnerable when they started school in 2021, The Front Project’s new report ‘SUPPORTING ALL CHILDEN TO THRIVE - The importance of equity in early childhood education’, now explores in detail where these children live, their circumstances, and what can be done do to help them.

“In Australia, a postcode should not be a factor resulting in increased rates of child developmental vulnerability, but as our analysis demonstrates, that is unfortunately the case,” The Front Project CEO Jane Hunt said.

“In addition to geographical disparities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children who are not proficient in English, and children in lower socio-economic communities, also experience higher rates of developmental vulnerability.

“Too many children in these groups are being held back from their full potential, not because of lack of ability, but lack of opportunity and support,” Ms Hunt said.

Ms Hunt said it is well established that access to high quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) delivers better life outcomes and lower costs to society and taxpayers in the long term.

“While some important steps forward have been taken in ECEC policy over the last 12 months, more work is needed to ensure Australia’s ECEC system is high quality, accessible and affordable for all families, no matter their background or where they live,” she said.

The AEDC data classifies children as ‘on track’, ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’, depending on how they score in each of five areas of development or domains.

Children who are experiencing developmental vulnerability demonstrate a much lower than average ability in at least one AEDC domain.

The five domains measured, physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills (school-based) and communication skills and general knowledge, are key areas of children’s development which are linked to long term developmental, health, wellbeing and academic outcomes.

By Grade 3 developmentally vulnerable children are a year behind their peers on NAPLAN (the national literacy and numeracy assessment that students undertake in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9). By Grade 5 they are on average two years behind their peers on NAPLAN.

Evidence shows that these students are, in turn, less likely to finish school, and are more likely to experience unemployment and ill-health throughout their lives.

According to the Front Project report:

  • Children in the most disadvantaged socio-economic areas are twice as likely to be developmentally vulnerable (33.2 per cent compared to 14.9 percent) and three times more likely to be vulnerable in more than one area (19.1 percent compared to 6.7 percent) than children in the most advantaged socio-economic areas.

  • The further you move from the city, the more likely you will be at risk of developmental vulnerability. Vulnerability in very remote areas soars, with nearly one in two children vulnerable on one domain (46.2 per cent) compared to one in five (20.8 per cent) in major cities.

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have high levels of vulnerability – 42.3 per cent are vulnerable on one or more domain compared to 20.6 percent for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

  • A greater percentage of children from a language background other than English experience developmental vulnerability in one or more domains (25.3 per cent) than children from an English- only language background (20.8 per cent).

    This is why the Front Project is urging political leaders during this election campaign to commit to implementing solutions to support all children to have the best start in life, including:

  • Ensuring that every Australian child gets two years of ECEC prior to school - and more for those who need it the most.

  • Investing in the workforce to build quality in every community.

  • Providing targeted support for the inclusion of all children and improve access to quality ECEC.

    Go here to access the report.