Opinion article

Building better futures through data

It’s a sad fact that today, more than 1.2 million Australian children and young people – or one in six – live in poverty. It is critical that targeted support is provided to families when their children most need it, and this is only possible when frontline team members have access to timely and useful data, writes Graham Jaeschke, General Manager, South Australia and the Northern Territory at the Smith Family.

It’s a sad fact that today, more than 1.2 million Australian children and young people – or one in six – live in poverty. That rate has remained relatively unchanged in recent years. There is compelling evidence of the long-term consequences of growing up in poverty: poorer health; educational and employment outcomes; poorer wellbeing; and increased reliance on welfare and other services. Children in this situation are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable when they start school and to struggle throughout their education. They are less likely to complete Year 12 than their more advantaged peers and, post-school, they are less likely to be in work, training or further study.

Education is one of the most powerful change agents. Support from the earliest years of schooling offers the opportunity to break the cycle of disadvantage. It is critical that targeted support is provided to families when their children most need it, and this is only possible when frontline team members have access to timely and useful data.

As part of the Smith Family’s Learning for Life program that helps children and young people experiencing disadvantage, Smith Family team members would only have access to certain educational information for the children and young people they are working with once a year. Students’ school attendance data and literacy and numeracy grades were often only available from end-of-year school reports provided by families. Recently, this barrier to providing targeted and timely support has been removed by a ground-breaking new collaboration between the South Australian Department for Education and The Smith Family. A dashboard developed by the Department for Education gives our frontline team members in South Australia, access to real-time attendance, achievement and other school-related information. Leveraging this data, tailored supports are being offered as issues emerge, many of which have the potential to significantly and positively alter students’ pathways through school. Where good progress has been made, students’ efforts are recognised and commended, helping to reinforce the value of education and strengthen young people’s engagement in their learning.

It was essential that the families of children whose data is shared decided whether that would occur. Our team members explained the data sharing to each South Australian family on the Learning for Life program, ensuring they understood what information would be accessed and for what purposes, so they could provide informed consent. Families’ enthusiasm for the dashboard and the access to data it facilitates is evident, with 95 per cent of those consulted consenting to the sharing of their children’s data.

As a data exchange arrangement between a state education department and a non-government organisation, the dashboard is a South Australian first, requiring legislative change in state parliament to make it possible. Regulations were amended to allow the data to be shared with The Smith Family. The need for an intuitive, easy-to-use and secure tool that focuses on what is needed to support children and their families allowed for legislative change to be seen as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. The highly collaborative partnership between the SA Department for Education and The Smith Family continues to be driven by the common objective of improving the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children and young people.

The dashboard currently provides data for more than 4000 South Australian students on the Learning for Life program. Over the next five years, there is the potential for data to be accessible for around 11,000 children and young people in the state. It is hoped that the success of the partnership will prompt education departments in other states and territories to consider similar data-sharing arrangements. Director of Data Analytics and Reporting at the SA Department for Education, David Engelhardt, won’t be surprised if other states adopt the idea. "The value proposition about the benefits to children is so clear that I suspect that, once we've demonstrated that you can do it safely, others will follow,” he says.

The dashboard is a strong example of how genuine and purposeful data partnerships can make a difference to the lives of children and young people by improving how they are supported. It has garnered positive interest from school principals and staff, state and federal government departments and other organisations interested in data for purpose. It has the potential to encourage further data partnerships between government departments and other organisations interested in improving the lives of Australians.

The link between poverty and educational outcomes is well-known. This dashboard is another tool that can help break the long-term cycle of poverty. And we will need to use every tool in the kit to collectively work with and for those 1.2 million children and their families, supporting them to change their lives.

CEDA's Pathways to eradicating poverty in Australia livestream is happening on Tuesday, 18th October as part of Anti-Poverty Week. Register for the event here.

About the authors

Graham Jaeschke

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Graham Jaeschke joined The Smith Family in June 2008. For two years, Graham was Co-Chair of Anti-Poverty Week in South Australia and he is currently a member of the Steering Group. Previously he was a member of the Australian Early Development Index Coordinating Committee in South Australia.

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