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Leading local solutions in Wimmera Southern Mallee


Now in its second year, the Wimmera Southern Mallee Early Years Project, or ‘BY FIVE’, was one of the first Regional Partnership-driven projects to get off the ground. A partnership with the Department of Education and Training (DET) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), along with support from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the project is forging ahead, ultimately seeking place-based solutions to local needs.

“Australia has a myriad of health, education and welfare services to support children in the early years, yet we continue to see some children arrive at school without the experiences and support they need to thrive,” explains Emma Vogel, Chair of ‘BY FIVE’. “We have found remote and rural locations, especially with small populations, are particularly vulnerable.”

The 'BY FIVE' project came out of the Regional Partnership Assembly process where, in 2016, the Wimmera Southern Mallee (WSM) community identified improving early years’ outcomes as a major priority for the region.

“‘BY FIVE’ was developed to build on existing resources and skills and ensure children in the Wimmera Southern Mallee have the very best early years learning experience,” explains Ms Vogel.  “We called the project ‘BY FIVE’ because it covers five geographic clusters within WSM and we want to see significant change on five developmental outcomes by the time children reach five years of age and start school.”

She adds, “This project brings together parents, carers, educators and health professionals that interact with a child during its first five years. The challenge is to design the best system for every child, irrespective of where the service comes from and how it is funded. The focus is squarely on the child.”

Over the past year, the five project clusters have been working with Karen Modoo, the 'BY FIVE' project coordinator, and Rachel Robinson from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute to map their local services as a child moves between parent, maternal child health services, childcare, kinder, health services, and school.

A map of early childhood program delivery and learning in each cluster is beginning to emerge. It will be used to see where improvements can be made to ensure the services in each project community are joined up and working effectively for families and children.

“The evidence is clear - to ensure children get the best start, we need to improve the conditions under which families are raising children and promote the importance of early childhood development with joined up quality services capable of working together to respond to local needs,” explains Ms Robinson.

“This is complex work, because no two places are alike. A bespoke and place-based approach is the only way to be able to respond and deal with the complexity and challenges in a sustainable and respectful way.”

The project runs until 2021 but has already seen some wins for the region.

In late February, a diverse and passionate crowd of more than 90 members of the five WSM early years clusters undertook intensive training with the Bastow Institute. The training – the first of three intensive sessions – was run in Horsham, only the second time that the Bastow program has been delivered regionally.

“The training endeavours to build local skills, knowledge and capacity and will assist each Cluster to formulate and develop action research plans related to their location and early years situation,” explains Ms Robinson. “The Bastow training was supported by the Victorian Department of Education and Training (DET) and translates to a $300,000 investment in the skilling up and capacity building of members of the five clusters.”

“Without the trial, we doubt we would have seen a flow of resources and effort come into our region to support our communities,” explains Ms Vogel, former WSM RP Vice-Chair. “A small, well targeted investment from government has unlocked an enormous sleeping giant - the power of local communities to identify and resolve its own issues.”

It’s not just in the early years that the WSM Partnership is driving local solutions.

“The Wimmera Southern Mallee region experiences significant rates of family violence,” explains David Jochinke, Chair of the WSM Partnership. “Many of our local industries are quite male dominated, resulting in entrenched gender inequality.”

For the past year, the Partnership has been working with local stakeholders and the Victorian Government’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to co-design a response to issues of family violence that best meets the needs of the local community.

“People in our region often live in remote locations. For those needing to access family violence services, that can be particularly hard and disruptive to both children’s schooling and the affected parents’ work and community commitments. The sheer distance to travel to seek support, including to seek safe accommodation, counselling and intervention support can be a barrier for some individuals,” explains Mr Jochinke.

The Partnership has now secured more than $1.3 million in Government funding which is being used in part to purchase six properties across the region which can be used as emergency accommodation.

The remainder of the funding is for support services for those living in the accommodation and to assist them to transition into the private accommodation market, thus freeing up the crisis accommodation for others.

“This extra accommodation will make a significant difference in our region,” explains Mr Jochinke. “And it’s crucial that it’s accompanied by proper support services which are connected and integrated.”

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