A few months ago I attended the funeral of three young Aboriginal boys, the oldest of whom was 11. They were killed on Saturday March 11 while walking on railway tracks in a suburb south west of Brisbane. I attended because the children and their families have had some association with our Pathways to Prevention program, a partnership between Griffith University and the national community organisation Mission Australia. Our work is located in a disadvantaged area not too far from where the tragedy occurred. Pathways aims to promote both child and community development through child-focused programs, family empowerment, and through building stronger connections between families, children and local schools .
Our project philosophy is very much in line with a 10-point national plan for early childhood released on August 21 this year by a group of 21 experts from a range of disciplines. The recommendations of this group include prioritising the wellbeing of children, universal preschool education for children in the two years prior to school, and a living wage payment that allows primary carers to take at least a year to care for infants and young children. In this paper I want to reflect on the policy landscape around early childhood, families and schools, draw on what we have learned in our work in the Pathways Project, and propose a specific tool for extending the early-years initiatives to support the development of children throughout the primary years and beyond. However the funeral remains for me a vivid reminder of the formidable challenges we face, no matter what age group we focus on.
More than one thousand people, mostly from the Indigenous community, attended the funeral, sharing their memories of the boys and offering their love and support to the families. The tragedy was intensified for one of the families because just eight weeks previously they had lost an older boy in a high-speed police pursuit. He had been a passenger in a stolen car that crashed when the young driver lost control.
The stories that emerged about the lives of the children brought home to me the relentless challenge of poverty and social exclusion in this country. The stories made real the statistics for this nation that show that since World War II many aspects of health and wellbeing haven't got better for children and young people, despite the longest economic boom in history. On the contrary, many indicators show substantial deterioration in health and wellbeing, especially for our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
The stories also underlined for me the way problems in the domains of education, health, family life, economic activity, community, work, and criminal justice are intertwined. For example one of the boys spent his early years in what is probably the most socially deprived suburb in Brisbane, was excluded from school by Grade 2 and became, in the words of the eulogy, a Primary School Dropout. This was despite the efforts and obvious love of his two parents and extended family. Toward the end of his short life, at age 9, this lad was roaming the streets and the city, emulating the behaviour of older boys, notwithstanding their admonitions to always be a good boy and that it was no good doing the things they did.
Tragically, one aspect of the funeral was an enacted parable, illustrating this point about the connectedness of problems. As the church bells tolled and the hearses began to pull out for the cemetery, five heavily armoured vans emerged from the rear, from the car park, setting out for their journeys back to the prisons and detention centres from which several older siblings and cousins had been released temporarily for the service. I have to say that for me the starkness of the parable was almost more than I could bear: it was almost as if for Indigenous children there are two inevitable destinations, the prison or the cemetery, each pathway through life being littered with the wreckage of a school career.
Despite all the love with which these three boys were surrounded, it has to be recognised that on that fateful afternoon a few months ago they were in a perilous situation and were too young (or perhaps too cocky) to understand the risks. And no responsible adult was there at the time to look out for them. Family and community supports sometimes fail even in the most privileged social settings. Where poverty and social exclusion are entrenched, failure of support systems is a more common phenomenon. That's why the state has a responsibility, and indeed why the whole community has a profound moral obligation to look out for vulnerable children like the three boys who were killed, as well as for all children and young people who will from time to time encounter challenges beyond the normal capacities of families to overcome.
Something close to a national consensus has developed recently around the need to address the effects of social inequality through interventions that focus on the early years (0-5), with all state governments and the Commonwealth now committing substantial resources. The most prominent example is the nationwide Communities for Children program . Yet ten years ago, the idea of early intervention was largely absent from Australian policy discourse. What brought about change were the long-term evaluations of overseas interventions, the publication locally of reports like Pathways to Prevention: Developmental and Early Intervention Approaches to Crime in Australia which I authored with a group of colleagues , and the formation of major lobbies such as the National Initiative for the Early Years and the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth. The national 10-point plan for early childhood I referred to earlier is the latest contribution to this policy push.
However, what is now needed is an extension of the principles underpinning the early-years policies to school-aged children and beyond, into early adulthood, and a concomitant refocusing on the school system. We are currently building on what was learned from the Pathways to Prevention program, which began with a focus on the early years and the transition to school, to address this larger challenge. A principle that is guiding our thinking is a preposterous proposition for public policy that the great American developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner enunciated 25 years ago: Create formal support systems that generate and strengthen informal support systems, that in turn reduce the need for formal systems .
While we can document many successes through the Pathways Project, including measurable improvements in behaviour amongst boys who participated in the preschool program and whose parents participated in the family independence program, we continue to face significant challenges in terms of bridging the huge divide between families and schools, and in setting up systems that will allow schools, families and the helping agencies to work effectively together to promote better outcomes for children.
We have called a new approach that we are in the process of piloting Circles of Care. Circles of Care is a program designed primarily to address the imbalance of power between disadvantaged families and schools. We aim to create within schools a supportive community that is there for the child throughout their primary school career, and which can provide ongoing support, encouragement and advocacy. A child's circle of care would support positive development and help to reduce the risks of conflict between the child and the school.
Acknowledgements of the child's achievements would be shared within the circle, and form an alternative to the parent-teacher interviews that are often poorly attended and which are stressful for those parents and teachers involved. Effectively the program creates a conspiracy of care that celebrates successes and provides a small community – including but extending the family – that looks out for the interests of the child and heads off difficulties before they occur.
How would Circles of Care be constituted? We envisage a small group consisting of the child's teacher, the parents or caregivers, an uncle or other relative, perhaps an older sibling, a Pathways worker, and perhaps a learning support teacher or someone else from the school (such as a teacher aide who speaks the family's language). This small group could call on other relevant people and agencies as needed.
This is a challenging project, but it is exactly in the spirit of Bronfenbrenner and his emphasis on creating formal or organised systems that create the conditions in which informal and community supports can flourish, ultimately — one would hope — making special schools and behaviour management systems less necessary. The idea builds on the developmental and restorative literatures, and addresses critical deficiencies in current systems.
In the end the challenge we face in this country is to care enough to establish new ways of seeing and acting, to move outside of established systems that seem incapable of solving the kinds of wicked problems that lead to tragedy and heartache. It's about opening doors for children who can't open them for themselves.
A longer version of this paper was delivered to the Brisbane Ideas Festival on April 2, 2006.