Research partnership may transform lives of vulnerable children

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This year, after a highly competitive process, the Melbourne  School of Population Health (MSPH) was awarded one of three ‘Research and  Evaluation Partnerships’ with the Department of Education and Early Childhood  Development (DEECD).
The partnership is a unique collaboration between government policy makers and public health and education researchers that could transform the lives of many vulnerable Victorian children. The two other partnerships were also awarded to the University of Melbourne.

The partnership is a new way of doing business for the department and involves researchers and policy makers sharing their respective  areas of expertise, with the aim of developing strong evidence-based policies –  policies that could enable children to develop to their full potential.

Associate Professor Andrea de Silva-Sanigorski, of the McCaughey Centre at MSPH, says the close partnership between DEECD and three University of Melbourne entities is one of many innovative aspects of the program.

The program’s combined efforts will develop a multi-dimensional picture of children’s lives, she says, starting from very early childhood, through school years and entry into the workforce, examining a range of outcomes spanning health, well-being, development and learning.

MSPH is focusing on early childhood through three projects that will:

  • Link and analyse existing data
  • Generate new evidence through innovative research and
  • Strengthen the use of evidence in making decisions and policy.

The ambitious, three-year program started in July 2011 and unites DEECD with the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, as well as MSPH. Associate Professor Andrea de Silva-Sanigorski is partnership director and Professor Terry Nolan and Professor Elizabeth Waters lead the MSPH partnership.Dr Peter Kremer is also part of the project team.
 
Project 1, ‘Establishing  an integrated data platform for monitoring and assessing child health, wellbeing, development and learning’, is the first of three projects in the first phase of the partnership. “A key aspect of Project 1 by MSPH is making better use of monitoring and surveillance data sets that the Government already collects through sources like the maternal child health service and schools, which are used for the reporting of top line measures that the Government requires,” she says. “But these are rich data sources that could be better utilised for planning, resource allocation, and research, evaluation and population monitoring.”

Project 2, ‘A detailed, prospective cohort study of early childhood factors and child outcomes’, will  expand two existing early childhood research cohorts to  investigate health and development issues. It will examine the contribution of  early life risk and protective factors on outcomes throughout childhood.

Project 3, ‘Early  childhood services which shape primary school educational outcomes’, will  focus on the service sector. “It will investigate questions such as ‘what  impact does the quality of kindergarten teachers or child care staff have on learning outcomes as a child gets older?’, as well as other services such as  health and welfare.”

“Alongside  this data work is a comprehensive program of activities to enhance research and  evaluation capacity with government,” she says. “Each of the research partners  will provide training and support for policy makers on how to gather and  interpret research evidence.The policy and decision makers in turn will guide  researchers in relation to how policies are developed and what format we need  to provide the research evidence to them for it to be used in policy-making  processes.”
“We  are laying the groundwork for improving the lives of children in the years  ahead,” she says. “That’s our hope. That by creating an evidence base that can  inform decision-making processes we will have better outcomes for children,  families, settings, services and the wider community,” she says. “Through this  approach we can try to reduce developmental health inequalities that, once  established, are hard to change and can have lifelong impacts on children’s  trajectories.”