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Starting a national conversation: early intervention in Australia


27 Nov 2019

EIF director of evidence reports back from a recent visit to Australia, where the energy and momentum behind the early intervention agenda continue to grow.

The first 10 days of November took me away from the autumn drizzle of the UK, to Australia, where I got to experience the spring drizzle of Melbourne, before heading to a sunnier Perth. At this point I should clarify for any readers who are concerned that we have run out of insightful content and started blogging about our holidays, that this was a work trip.

I was in Australia to participate in two events. Firstly, an Early Intervention Forum jointly hosted by the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare and Berry Street; and secondly a launch event for How Australia can invest in children and return more, the report we jointly authored with partners in Australia on the annual fiscal costs of late intervention (which my colleague Will has blogged about recently). The trip gave me an excellent opportunity to meet with practitioners, policymakers, researchers and funders across the children and family space, to learn more about the challenges the country faces, and to hear about the ideas and initiatives through which they are seeking to increase the prominence of prevention and early intervention in the Australian social policy landscape.

One of my key reflections from the trip was that enthusiasm is clearly there to engage with the international evidence base – including learning from the What Works movement here in the UK – while contributing to a global movement to generate and use high-quality evidence of effective services. I was also struck by the fact that Australia faces many of the same challenges as the UK, including high levels of spending on statutory services, increasing pressure on areas such as child protection and mental health, and significant regional disparities in demand for services and levels of spend. It is also interesting that they also face many of the same barriers to moving early intervention up the agenda, including short-term budgetary cycles, lack of join-up between regional and national government, limited evaluation of interventions, and poor incentives for areas to substantially increase investment in early intervention services, given the long-term and disparate nature of the benefits. 

However, there are some important differences in the Australian case. Foremost is the significant overrepresentation of indigenous communities in statutory services. Levels of remoteness are also on a different scale to anything we experience in the UK: Western Australia alone is 10 times the size of the UK but has a smaller population than the West Midlands. (We also don’t agree on the correct pronunciation of data: is it ‘dayta’ or ‘dahta’?)

There are also important structural differences. Australian state governments have considerable autonomy when it comes to design, delivery and spending on social policy – they are more similar to the devolved administrations of the UK than local authority areas within our nations. And, interestingly from my perspective, it is much more common for research to be funded by philanthropists and corporate donations, an area where the UK lags behind.

Overall, the main thing I took away from my time in Australia was the energy and momentum that there is behind using evidence-based approaches to early intervention to improve outcomes for children. In many ways, it felt like Australia is in a similar place now to where the UK was five or 10 years ago: looking to understand how early intervention can be part of the solution in terms of improving outcomes for children, while seeking to reduce pressure on statutory budgets and wanting to start a national conversation about how to achieve that. With a world-class research sector, energetic and engaged stakeholders across the public and third sector, active philanthropists and public finances which – at least by compassion to the UK – are relatively healthy, they are well placed to bring about sustainable change for children. As our report notes, “children are the foundation of a cohesive society, a strong economy and a prosperous Australia”and I look forward to the role that evidence-based early intervention has to play in delivering on that vision.