A human development expert from Oxford University says Australia needs to implement a national early language and literacy strategy.
New figures out today show one in every five Australian children are developmentally at risk by the time they reach school.
The Australian Early Development census measures the development of about 300,000 children in their first year of school.
Edward Melhuish from Oxford University, who had been advising the Federal Government on the issue, said poor literacy outcomes were costing the nation.
“Carrying 20 per cent of the population who don’t have the basic skills for success in a modern society is a big burden,” he said.
“If we can reduce the incidence of poor literacy … in our children then we are going to be a more successful and more affluent society.
“If my neighbour is on social security I pay for it. If my neighbour goes to prison, I pay for the police, I pay for the courts, I pay for the prison, so while we think ‘oh, that’s their problem not ours’, in fact we’re paying for that.”
The need for a national early literacy strategy will be examined at a summit in Canberra this week.
Focus needs to shift to language development: Melhuish
Professor Melhuish, who will be speaking at the event, said there needed to be a larger focus on language development.
He said poor literacy had its roots in early childhood where vital language skills were often neglected.
“We need to make sure all of our children have good basic spoken language skills by the time they get to school,” he said.
“The most important thing is to give them basic spoken language skills which are then the foundation upon which the literacy skills, which involve the visual medium of language, are built.”
Professor Melhuish, who is also a visiting professor at the University of Wollongong, said a solution was the introduction of a “universal part-time preschool place for every three-year-old and upwards in the country”.
“We found that those children who have good preschool experiences, given the opportunity to develop their language skills with a wide range of people, do better throughout the rest of their lives,” he said.
The study also showed between 2009 and 2015 the gap between the number of children in disadvantaged areas who were vulnerable to developmental problems widened, compared to those from the least disadvantaged areas.
“Areas of language skills and cognitive capabilities we’ve seen improvements right across the social-economic spectrum,” Education minister Simon Birmingham told the ABC’s AM program.
“But it also shows that in the other areas around that emotional wellbeing, physical wellbeing, social capabilities, that there are still real gaps that are in place.”