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The Tasmanian Government has made a significant commitment in recent years to ensure children have the best possible start in life. However, the cycle of disadvantage within families and across generations remains a barrier to this and continues to prevent many children from realizing their true potential. Breaking this cycle is one of the most persistent challenges facing the state.
Announced by the Tasmanian Government as a whole-of-government initiative in 2009, Tasmania's Child and Family Centres are a new place-based service model for the provision of early childhood services and supports in communities with high service needs.
From 2011-2014, twelve Centres opened in twelve communities characterised by deep and persistent socioeconomic disadvantage, across the state. Centres are governed, funded and planned for through a whole-of-government approach. The highest level of governance is the Centre Steering Committee.
This Committee consists of Deputy Secretaries of the Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Tasmania Police, Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Director, Equity, Early Years and Schools, Department of Education.
Acting as a one-stop-shop for services and supports to help give children the best possible start in life, the community-directed Centres enable parents to access in one close-by location, comprehensive, coordinated and complementary services and supports from pregnancy through to the start of compulsory school at age five. Brought together under one roof, are service providers from different disciplines, professions, government departments, service organisations and the surrounding community.
Well before the first brick was laid, the Centres have been steered by members of the local community, ensuring services and supports provided are tailor-made to meet local needs. Centres offer services and supports on a drop-in and appointment basis. Centres aim to provide a welcoming, respectful, inclusive place where everyone has the right to engage in learning opportunities in culturally appropriate settings.
The implicit theory of change that underpins the Centre model is that engaging, supporting and working with children and families in the early years will ultimately improve outcomes for children, families and communities. Centres are recently established so it will take time before their impact on children's health, wellbeing, development and learning can be evaluated.
It will also take time develop solid research-government-community partnerships, study designs, methodologies and analytic approaches to generate evidence of the impact of Child and Families on outcomes for children, families and communites.
Our mixed-methods investigation of the impact of Centres on parents' use and experiences of preschool services and supports showed that Centres had a positive impact on parents' use and experiences of services and supports for young children.
Parents provided evidence that Centres were successfully engaging, supporting and working with families to give their children the best start in life. Parents experienced Centres as welcoming, respectful and inclusive places that were helping them develop positive child, family, school and community connections.
Centre users' judged their experiences of services and supports more positively than non-users on fundamental elements of place-based initiatives (i.e., joined-up working, capacity building, and flexible delivery), as well as best-practice principles from Australia's Early Years Learning Framework (i.e., secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships, partnerships, equity and respect for diversity).
While it is too soon since the establishment of Centres to evaluate the impact of Centres on child outcomes, parents who used Centres were more favourable than non-users about the extent to which services and supports helped them prepare their children for school. Parents with older children who had not had access to the services and supports now provided by the Centres considered that their younger children were better prepared for school than their older children.
In short, the Centre model is making a difference to the use and experiences of early years services and supports for children in communities where new ways of thinking and doing are needed to improve education and health inequalities and buck the trend of concentrated socioeconomic disadvantage.
Addressing education and health inequalities in Tasmania requires a long-term focus and commitment. This project was a promising start to the sustained research, government and community partnerships that will be required to lift education and health standards in Tasmania.