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Linking Schools and Early Years Project, Part 1 – Background, rationale and learnings to date

Bella Laidlaw
Project Officer, Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

In Australia, a significant proportion of children, especially those from disadvantaged communities, arrive at school developmentally vulnerable (Centre for Community Child Health & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research 2007).

Research conducted by the Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH) in 2006 explored the potential to refocus community-based services for young children and their families and found that barriers faced by vulnerable children when starting school may be overcome by stronger linkages and partnerships between schools and early years services, families and the community. The research also highlighted the potential that bridging the gap between early years services and primary schools has to ensure better planning for the individual needs of children entering school.

The Linking Schools and Early Years project

In response to the research, the Linking Schools and Early Years project, funded by the R.E. Ross Trust and led by the CCCH, is working with selected schools, their feeder early education and care services, child and family services and local governments to develop and trial processes and structures to ensure that all children enter the formal primary education system ready to engage and be successful in school. The project is operating in Footscray in the City of Maribyrnong, Hastings in Mornington Peninsula Shire and, with the support of the Foundation for Young Australians, in Corio/Norlane in the City of Greater Geelong. It is currently in its third year and will run until 2012.

Three specific goals have been identified.
1.    Children and families making a smooth transition between early years services and schools.
2.    Early years services and schools actively connecting with families.
3.    Schools consistently responding to the individual learning needs of all children.

Achieving project goals

To work towards achieving these goals, a number of local strategies have been put in place within the three project areas. It is important to remember that strategies and activities should be informed by local contexts: effective strategies are most likely to be developed by broad-based planning involving all local stakeholders. It is also important to set up processes to ensure that project strategies and activities remain outcomes-focused. 

For this reason, an outcomes-based action plan is being used to support the development of locally relevant project strategies and activities in each site. An outcomes-based action plan is a document that clearly outlines the outcomes or goals that are desired and the strategies and activities that will be put in place to achieve them. The steps involved in creating an outcome-based action plan include:

1.    forming a local partnership group
       •    establishing a representative group and supporting the development of local relationships
       •    developing a shared vision and goals
2.    gathering contextual information to inform the local action plan
       •    documenting community demographics
       •    mapping community assets and services
       •    conducting consultations with key stakeholders
3.    developing a local action plan
       •    selecting locally relevant strategies and activities with reference to the contextual information and research evidence
       •    creating a work plan that identifies how, when and what resources are required and who is responsible for delivering each project activity.

Forming local partnership groups

It can be very powerful to bring a group together around a shared vision. However, it is also important to recognise that establishing and sustaining representative partnership groups can be challenging. There are various ways to support and facilitate the development of local partnership groups. For example, the project seeks to build, where possible, on existing partnerships and networks. It also seeks to tap into and support the development of local ‘champions’ who can support and promote the partnership group and local activities. This project has found that, to support local stakeholders to work in partnership towards a common goal, there needs to be opportunities for them to spend time planning and working together and opportunities for them to learn about and understand each other's practices.

The project places great value on ensuring that all stakeholders are represented in the partnership groups and valued as active participants. The partnership groups identify a shared vision to work towards, and then create a shared action plan that identifies how they will work towards achieving their vision. There is an understanding that groups need to be flexible and responsive to make local partnerships relevant and ‘value adding’ for those involved. The partnership groups are an opportunity to build local capacity, resulting in positive and effective action on the ground.

Gathering contextual information

Contextual information has been used to guide the identification of locally relevant strategies and activities by each partnership group. One important source of contextual information is data from the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI). The AEDI is a population measure of children's development as they enter school, providing information about how communities have supported children up to that point. The AEDI measures five areas of child development based on scores from a checklist completed by teachers. The areas are physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language, cognitive and communication skills; and general knowledge.

Contextual information has also taken the form of community assets that may be built upon, and consultation data collected with key stakeholders around each of the project goals. Contextual data is being updated and expanded on a regular basis in each project site. 

Developing a local action plan
To guide the project, a locally relevant action plan is developed by the partnership group in each site. The action plans are informed by the local information collected and by research evidence where available. The action plans created are ‘living documents’ owned by the partnership group that can be reviewed and updated as local needs emerge and as new contextual information and evaluation information arises. As the project activities become part of everyday practice, new project strategies and activities are developed.

Examples of project activities

Having gone through these planning processes, the three local groups have developed some locally relevant strategies to support the project goals.

To help children and families make a smooth transition between early years services and schools, one of the local project groups set up peer swaps: time-release funding for prep teachers, kindergarten teachers and childcare staff to spend time in each other's services and gain a greater understanding of each other's practices. Another locally developed strategy involves community forums where staff from schools, early education and care and local services meet for joint professional development.

One of the local groups has invited families to take part in school-based activities as a means of creating a welcoming and comfortable environment for them. Another local group has set up school transition activities for parents whose children have not attended a preschool program before entering school.

In recognition of support that parents, schools and early years services can give each other to improve responsiveness to the individual needs of all children, local partnership groups are working with families to develop and trial processes to share information between children’s different education settings.

Project evaluation

To ensure that the project learnings are documented and available to inform both community-based practice and policy development Australia-wide, an external evaluation procedure to be conducted by the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has been built into the project. The evaluation will build and disseminate Australian-based research evidence around effective processes and strategies that can strengthen partnerships between early years services and schools; enable schools, early years services, families and the community to work collaboratively to overcome barriers to children’s learning and development; enable children and families to transition smoothly between early years services and schools; enable schools and early years services to better engage with families; and enable schools to better accomodate children of all abilities and backgrounds.

A forthcoming article in Curriculum Leadership will examine aspects of how the project is operating in the Hastings community.

Centre for Community Child Health (2006), Linking schools and early years’ services final report, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.

Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH) and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research (2007), Australian Early Development Index: Building better communities for children: community results 2004-06, Australian Government Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Commonwealth of Australia, Melbourne.


Subject Headings

Early childhood education