More Indigenous kids going to preschool, but lag in developmental skills

About two-thirds of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children struggle with developmental skills when they begin school, despite improvements in the number of students attending preschool programs.

New data released on Thursday by the Productivity Commission shows the federal government is lagging in its effort to increase the number of young Indigenous children ready to begin school to more than half by 2031.

Indigenous kids play with a virtual reality headset during the making of Carriberrie, a documentary on Aboriginal dance; an image from the film with Anangu women at Uluru. Credit:Dominic Allen

However, authorities are making strides in their goal to lift the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in early childhood education, and reduce youth detention rates among Australia’s First Nations people.

According to the new Closing the Gap dashboard data, only about a third of Indigenous students met the five key developmental targets set up by the Australian Early Development Census before starting school in 2021, compared to 56 per cent of non-Indigenous children.

The census measures children’s health, wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, cognitive and language skills, and general knowledge to determine whether they are developing appropriately and is used as a national benchmark.

It assesses the children as being developmentally on track, at-risk, or vulnerable as they enter their first year of school, and is often used to guide policy planning and service delivery in Australia.

Despite improvements in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, and the ACT, the commission found the percentage of Indigenous children considered to be “on track” had dropped in NSW, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, hindering Australia’s ability to meet its 2031 target.

The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children found to be developmentally on track was highest in major cities and regional centres but the more remotely a child lived, the less ready they were to begin school.

In NT and SA, states with a large number of isolated communities, the percentage of children in very remote areas that met the census development requirements was just 6 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

Indigenous children were also more likely to have a medically diagnosed special need or be referred for an assessment for learning difficulties by a teacher than their non-Indigenous counterparts, the data showed.

That is despite early childhood education rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children soaring to almost 97 per cent in recent years, surpassing those of non-Indigenous children, which sits at about 87 per cent.

Only 76.7 per cent of the nation’s Indigenous children were enrolled in a pre-school program in 2016, when the commission began collecting the data.

If enrolments continue at the current rate, the federal government is on track to reach its goal of lifting the number of Indigenous young children in early childhood education before school to 95 per cent by 2025.

However, authorities will need to boost their efforts to lower the number of Indigenous children removed from their parents if they want to halve the rate of children in out-of-home care by 2031.

Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders now account for about 42 per cent of children aged between zero and 17 in care, despite representing only 6 per cent of the population in that age bracket.

The NT tops the list as the jurisdiction with the highest proportion of Indigenous children in care at 90.7 per cent, followed by WA at 57.5 per cent.

Authorities have made progress in reducing the number of Indigenous Australians aged between 10 and 17 in detention in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, WA, and South Australia, placing the country on track to reach its goal of slashing youth incarceration rates by 30 per cent before 2031.

The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in detention dropped from 32 per every 10,000 people in 2018-19 to about 23 per 10,000 people in 2020-21. Rates for non-Indigenous young Australians have remained the same since 2010, at 1.3 per 10,000 people.

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