Op-Ed – Early education the path to a healthier indigenous future

The early years, from conception to the first year of school shapes the journey that a child takes. We know when we get this right and when disparities in early life outcomes are addressed, we are giving children the best chance in life, because what happens during early childhood affects later health, wellbeing, educational attainment and employment.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day provides the opportunity to celebrate our children’s strengths and achievements. We need to acknowledge the work that has been done to get to this point and identify areas that can be improved upon to make sure that Indigenous children enjoy the best life possible.

My own journey has taught me much about creating pillars for adults and young people and what can be achieved when we empower children to realise the potential of their own future. I am encouraged by the progress we are achieving under the Closing the Gap early childhood target. We are on track to have 95 per cent of Indigenous four year olds enrolled in early childhood education. The number of students attending and engaging in school education is also on the increase.

I know that change will only happen when we partner with Elders, families and the community whilst placing significant value on the importance of our children’s connection to their culture. Giving children the best chance in life means fostering health and wellbeing, education and job opportunities, underpinned through the power of connection to family and culture and community.

The Morrison Government is committed to delivering a better future for our Indigenous children and youth across this nation.

Better futures for our Indigenous children requires a concerted effort to reduce the unacceptable levels of youth suicide in this nation. We will deliver $34.1 million specifically for Indigenous suicide prevention and mental health support for children and their families as part of the largest prevention strategy in Australia’s history. This will be led by communities through a co-design process that will work for them.

However, we need to acknowledge there is more to do. Child mortality rates and life expectancy still require significant attention. There are still high known rates of Rheumatic Heart Disease being recorded in school age children and the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt and I want to partner with Indigenous communities so we can deliver locally based solutions.

Going to school regularly is shown to boost a child’s success in life. That is why this Government is continuing the successful Remote School Attendance Strategy because missing school just one day per week every year will result in three missed years of schooling by year 12. The Morrison Government is supporting initiatives to improve school attendance and engagement through a renewed $81.5 million over three years. The program is already seeing positive outcomes with 14,000 students supported through the program and 480 local Indigenous community members employed to develop culturally appropriate strategies to support families and assist children to go to school.

The School Nutrition Program delivers three million meals to around 5,500 students each year. This supports 72 schools across 63 communities and 48 businesses in the NT alone, supporting families supporting families to overcome everyday challenges impacting on their ability to attend and succeed at school.

Earlier in the year, the Prime Minister announced $200 million over four years for an Indigenous Youth Education Package and increased funding in Abstudy is supporting education pathways for Indigenous students to have the same opportunities as every other Australian.

There has also been a 54 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous students taking VET pathways. Close to 6,000 students have access to VET or university by distance through the Away from Base Program.

All of these initiatives are supported through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy Children and Schooling Program which provides $300 million per year to ensure students have access to a high quality education that provides pathways to further education and employment.

I recently had the privilege of being with the British High Commissioner when she announced three young Indigenous women who are heading off to the United Kingdom to study at Cambridge and Oxford. The Charles Perkins and Roberta Sykes scholarships have been operating this program along with the Aurora Foundation for 10 years. This opportunity is demonstrating the capability of young Indigenous Australians and will support them to develop as role models within their own communities and more broadly. That’s a great outcome in their academic journey and will have flow on effects to our communities.

We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children thrive in environments where they have a strong connection to culture and community and when families have strong and nurturing home environments.

This weekend, at the 2019 Garma festival in North East Arnhem Land, I will listen to the voices of young people in what they express as their aspirations for the future.

I look forward to working together to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, for this generation and the next.