Family Matters No. 85 - September 2010

Institute seminars

Return on investment: Where is the community sector making the biggest change?

Clare Martin, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Council of Social Service

Seminar held at the Institute on 23 February 2010

Seminar report by Jacqui Harvey

A goal of the community services sector is to provide assistance to low-income earners and disadvantaged Australians facing a diversity of problems, including homelessness and unemployment. With funding from government or private sources, this sector provides community services across national and state/territory levels, encompassing metropolitan, regional and rural and remote areas. In the first of the 2010 AIFS seminar series, Clare Martin, Chief Executive Officer from the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) presented a discussion about users of the community services sector. She also described the types of challenges this sector faces and shared examples of several innovative programs currently in place in Queensland, South Australia and Hobart.

Ms Martin noted that meeting the demands of users places the community services sector under constant pressure. Figures indicate 1 in 10 people are being turned away. While this figure is "not good enough", it did not get significantly worse with the global financial crisis, indicating the sector was resilient during this period.

The demands of working within the community services sector also causes difficulties in attracting and retaining staff. Salary, career path, location, working hours, working conditions and training and development all influence the choices made about entering and leaving the sector.

While acknowledging that there is room for improvement in this area, Ms Martin also pointed out that many innovative and efficient programs are already in place. The Boystown program in Logan, Queensland, for example, offers fencing work to disadvantaged youth across public housing properties in Logan, through which participants learn how to go to work and work as a team member.

Other examples cited by Ms Martin included the Magdalene Centre in Adelaide, South Australia, and the Community Men's Shed in Willoughby, New South Wales. The Magadalene Centre program provides a catering service to local organisations whereby participants learn how to shop, follow a budget while shopping, and how to cook. The Community Men's Shed provides men with the opportunity to talk with other men about areas of their life with which they are struggling to cope or that they are finding challenging.

Ms Martin concluded that with innovative programs such as these leading the way, together with a stronger, more focused voice from the community services sector advocating to government, it would seem that the returns on investment for all - that is, government, communities and individuals - would be palpable.

Early childhood experiences and school achievement: Do trajectories start earlier than we think?

Linda J. Harrison, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, Charles Sturt University

Seminar held at the Institute on 20 April 2010

Seminar report by Elaine Kong

This seminar was presented by Linda Harrison, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at Charles Sturt University and the Children and Families Research Centre at Macquarie University. She discussed the importance of children's early education and care experiences and their relationship to school achievement in later years.

Associate Professor Harrison presented examples of recent early childhood education reforms aimed at improving access to quality early childhood education and child care. These include the National Quality Standard, the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia, and the proposal to provide universal access to a play-based education program by 2013.

Early childhood education reforms are based on international evidence and have led to a focus on the relationship between quality early childhood programs and educational outcomes. Associate Professor Harrison presented evidence-based research from the US and UK showing that early childhood programs that are of high quality (in terms of qualifications of staff, ratios of staff to children, staff stability and relationships between staff and children), are linked to positive developmental outcomes for children and support school achievement.Associate Professor Harrison then related this research to the Australian context and explored the factors that contribute to children's learning abilities and how early childhood education and care contributes to better outcomes. She drew on research based on Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) and the Child Care Choices (CCC) study. Analysis of the LSAC data showed early literacy and numeracy abilities support children's achievement at 5-6 years of age and throughout primary school. Results from the CCC study showed that children's earlier cognitive abilities and social skills were significant predictors of literacy and numeracy abilities in the year before school and in the first year of school. Both studies showed that the number of hours attended in a program positively influences children's learning outcomes, whereas the type of preschool program attended makes no difference to learning outcomes.

Associate Professor Harrison suggested that further research is needed to extend international findings about the importance of child care quality for children's outcomes to the Australian child care context. In particular, research is needed to untangle the specific aspects of "quality" that are important for early literacy and numeracy abilities.

The recent transformation of the American family: Witnessing and exploring social change

Professor Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr, Professor of Sociology and Research Associate, Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania

Seminar held at the Institute on 11 May 2010

Seminar report by Robyn Parker

In his several decades immersed in family sociology, Professor Furstenburg has witnessed sweeping changes in the form and function of Western families. Marriage and family trends observed during the latter half of the 20th century took place in a period in which the family changed more dramatically than at any other time in history. He is now working towards a theory to describe changes in how family is "done" in the first part of the 21st century. In Professor Furstenburg's view, changes in family formation emerge from "private frustrations that are translated in a public way". That is, when contemporary marriage and family forms become unattractive, adaptations arise - hence the trend towards, for example, cohabitation and later marriage. In his informative, thoughtful and entertaining seminar, Professor Furstenburg gave an overview of the key issues and trends that have characterised family formation in the past 50 years and outlined the key tensions he sees as affecting future family formation.

Professor Furstenburg's own early research and other demographic data show that the traditional, nostalgic view of marriage and the nuclear family has never existed - the realities were "air brushed and edited out of the picture". He offered a perspective on the intertwining of factors - such as the weakening of gender-based division of labour, the decline in well-paying jobs, the trend to longer periods in education, and the separation of sex from marriage leading to the rise of cohabitation - that sees the changes in family formation in a more positive, adaptive light. Along with the re-framing of notions of love and partner suitability, marriage now appears to be "not a pledge of commitment but a celebration of it".

In looking to the future, Professor Furstenburg identified some emerging tensions that are currently affecting American families. These include the ongoing transformation in gender equality, which leads to questions about "cultural stretch" in areas such as domestic roles, especially among families with limited means; teen pregnancy and the way in which society attempts to "manage" it; the potential impact on family formation trends brought about by greater access to higher education; and whether there will be a shift towards greater parental supervision of children, perhaps facilitated by advances in technology, or a move towards less highly supervised and more autonomous children.

After concluding that, as a responsive institution, the family 50 years from now is unlikely to look like it does today, Professor Furstenburg enthusiastically engaged in a lively question and answer session.

Correction: The authors of the seminar reports published in Family Matters 84 were omitted inadvertently. They were: Rachel King (Elizabeth Broderick seminar); Briony Horsfall (Adam Tomison); and Suzanne MacLaren (Stephen Zubrick).