Children in rural and remote Australia experience a 'tyranny of distance'

Children in rural and remote Australia experience a 'tyranny of distance'

Media Release — 28 November 2013

Australian children in regional areas experience a 'tyranny of distance' from major cities, seen in somewhat poorer learning outcomes for children living in these areas, according to a research report released today by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

The AIFS' report The tyrannies of distance and disadvantage presents the first systematic national information on differences in the family lives of children and children's development outcomes across two dimensions – the level of disadvantage in their local area, and the distance of their local area from a major city.

Manager of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children at AIFS, Dr Ben Edwards said the study found children in regional parts of the country had poorer cognitive development, but not social-emotional and physical wellbeing than their city counterparts.

"Even after controlling for individual child and family demographics, there were significant geographic differences that are clearly consistent with a tyranny of distance that is impacting on the ability of children in regional areas to understand, process information, and communicate," Dr Edwards said.

"This includes the development of vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning skills, such as the capacity to understand and analyse visual information and solve problems using visual reasoning.

"Children's poorer outcomes in the development of vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning are likely to flow through to differences in academic achievement for children in regional areas and may partly explain national NAPLAN test results showing children in provincial areas have worse academic achievement than children in metropolitan areas."

"However it's important to understand that while high levels of achievement may be important for children in regional areas seeking to go to university, teenagers in regional areas learn independence and leadership working on farms and in community groups and these skills are often transferable to jobs that may be more available in regional areas."

The report also identified a 'tyranny of disadvantage' for children living in disadvantaged areas in cities, who experienced greater emotional and behavioural problems than children in more advantaged areas. In regional areas, differences between disadvantaged and advantaged areas were less of an issue.

Dr Edwards said the findings highlighted the need for more location-based service delivery in both regional and disadvantaged areas to support children's needs, including enhancing children's learning environments.

The AIFS report also examined the variability across regions in local area characteristics, family demographic and economic characteristics, parent wellbeing and parenting style, family 'social capital', and access to services according to the disadvantage of the region.

Dr Edwards said that on many measures, children in advantaged areas in major cities did better because their family circumstances differed from those in disadvantaged major city areas and inner and outer regional areas. For example, parents tended to be higher educated and were more often couple families, rather than single parent families, in the advantaged major city areas.

He said that differences between disadvantaged and advantaged areas were also apparent in inner and outer regional areas, but the disparity was not as great as in major city areas when it came to the number of jobless families and those facing financial hardship.

"Parent wellbeing and parenting styles tended to remain fairly consistent between the geographic localities. However, fathers had much higher rates of risky binge drinking in regional areas, than in major city areas," Dr Edwards said.

"But children in regional areas enjoyed more community-wide protective factors than their major city counterparts such as more involvement in volunteer or community organisations, a stronger sense of neighbourhood belonging and safety, and being able to get help from family and friends."

Dr Edwards said that some differences in children's educational home contexts were reflected in lower levels of investment in education, when comparing homes in advantaged and disadvantaged areas. In disadvantaged areas, it was more common than in advantaged areas for families to have fewer than thirty children's books in their home and for children to watch more than three hours of TV a day.

"Differences between major city area and regional areas and between disadvantaged and advantaged areas in these family and environmental circumstances for children growing up may begin to be reflected in how children develop. But all of these factors are capable of changing and can be the target of policies and service delivery to help meet children's needs."

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