Thursday, 24 March 2016

Supporting vulnerable communities in Australia and the UK: linking data through knowledge exchange

Posted by Theodora Machaira, PhD student at Teesside University

On the 8th of March we were pleased to welcome Jen Lorains, researcher from Australia, in Fuse. Jen was successful in winning a Winston Churchill fellowship and decided to visit Fuse as her main research interest is knowledge exchange and translational research.

As part of her visit, Jen delivered a Knowledge Exchange Seminar on ‘Early Childhood Data with Communities in Australia’. Her presentation focused on the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) which is a national census which measures physical health, social skills, communication and general knowledge, language skills and emotions of 5 years old children. The AECD data is publically available and although it is not primarily used for knowledge exchange, it certainly facilitates it by enabling key stakeholders in early years to work with the data in order to improve child development outcomes.

Theodora (left) with Jen Lorains
Jen’s presentation was interesting on a number of levels but from a PhD researcher’s point of view, two things were most striking. First of all, thinking about child development assessments in diverse populations, I felt that Australia and the UK are not as different as I thought. In Australia, diversity exists mainly between indigenous and non-indigenous populations. Indigenous Australians have their own language, rituals and beliefs, which in early years and education settings can be challenging to deal with. Although, diversity in the UK is different and not as clear cut with many different cultures calling the country their home, diversity is also an issue over here and is now perhaps more prominent than ever. With that in mind, I was wondering, how fair (or accurate for that matter), is it to collect data on child development from all 5 years old children in English? Isn’t it possible that an indigenous child has good communication skills but in a different language? Of course, this cannot necessarily be taken into consideration in a national census. But surely that begs the question, are we classing children as having delayed development when perhaps we shouldn’t?

The second thing that got my attention was the issues with knowledge exchange in Australia that Jen discussed. She talked about how different professionals use the data and how challenging it is to have everyone on board when trying to develop common approaches to help children in areas where vulnerable children are identified as different professionals identify different solutions for highlighted problems. As my PhD focuses on systems change and developing a common approach between early years’ professionals, I again, thought about the similarities between Australia and the UK. Perhaps foolishly (I am only a year into my PhD!) I thought that these issues are a UK phenomenon, however, I quickly realised during Jen’s presentation that they are not.

Intrigued by these observations, I started talking to Jen after the seminar (and because Jen had an hour and a half to kill before her train) we decided to go for a drink after her seminar. Although some people might disagree, I thought that the pub was a great setting for knowledge exchange! We discussed my and her thoughts having travelled to the UK, USA, Canada and Peru, and realised that using research data with different communities in these counties requires researchers to be skilled in knowledge exchange. This will enable researchers to include these communities in interpreting the data and developing useful interventions with these communities. This might sometimes feel like fighting a lost battle but is essential to support vulnerable children identified through collected census data.

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