New project to bridge equity gap in children’s health and development

A new project aims to determine the most effective policies across Australia to reduce inequities in children’s mental, academic and physical development.

The Changing Children’s Chances collaborative program was recently awarded a $475,000 Australian Research Council Linkage Project grant.

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) Population Health Theme Director and University of Melbourne’s Professor Sharon Goldfeld will lead the project, which will be based in the Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children’s Hospital.

The University of Melbourne and MCRI have partnered with the Department of Social Services, Department of Health, VicHealth, Beyond Blue and the Brotherhood of St Laurence to undertake the project. The partners will also match the grant amount.

Professor Goldfeld said they would use cutting edge analytic approaches with existing data to generate new evidence to inform the development of precision policy, which could allow for more targeted and effective efforts to reduce inequities in children’s health and development.

She said they would work collaboratively with policymakers to identify how existing policy levers, such as those related to parents’ mental health, family income support, preschool programs and community built environments, could be stacked to maximise impacts on child inequities.

“We require evidence that can equip policy makers with the knowledge needed to choose the right public health, education, social, or health services strategies for a given population of children, at the right time, intensity, and duration in order to reduce inequities and improve child outcomes,” she said.

“This project will help decision makers to direct limited public funds towards intervention opportunities that will have the greatest impact with a focus on better use of existing resources.”

It comes as new findings published in Academic Pediatrics found interventions that improve home reading and preschool attendance may contribute to reducing socioeconomic inequities in reading outcomes, but alone are unlikely to be sufficient to close the equity gap.

The study of more than 5000 Australian children stated socioeconomically disadvantaged children had a higher risk of poor reading outcomes compared to more advantaged peers at 8-9 years.

“Home reading and preschool attendance should be considered within a broader multipronged and sustained strategy to make substantial progress in closing the socioeconomic gap in reading outcomes,” study lead author Professor Goldfeld said

Professor Goldfeld said inequities in children’s health and development were unjust and preventable.

Research shows children in Australia on a persistently disadvantaged pathway are at higher risk of poor development by the time they are 10-11 years of age, compared with the most advantaged children.

Professor Goldfeld said adverse and inequitable outcomes for children would emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary public health interventions.

“Now is an opportune time to act to close the existing equity gap and ensure kids of the COVID generation can be healthier than past generations,” she said.

The Linkage Grants Program promotes research partnerships between researchers and business, industry, community organisations and other publicly funded research agencies. It supports projects which initiate or develop long term strategic research alliances to apply advanced knowledge to problems, acquire new knowledge and as a basis for securing commercial and other benefits of research.

Other collaborating project organisations include Monash University, the University of New South Wales, RMIT University, Australian National University and Loughborough University in the UK.

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