Having responsibility for two precious pre-schoolers saw us at the new Bridges Hill children's playground in Cessnock. What a wonderful facility.
The play equipment and rides are excellent, many and varied. The playground sits in parkland in East Cessnock, historically nothing more than a bit of neglected woodland at the back of Convent Hill. Now those mature eucalypts combine with awnings and covered picnic tables to shade happily playing kids, their choice as rich as we have observed anywhere in the world.
Important too has been the creation of a cool - temperature-wise - public space for kids in this non-coastal township. Temperatures in Cessnock exceed 30 degrees for over 15 days during a typical January with a record maximum of 45.1 degrees recorded in the local area on January 4 this year.
So the Bridges Hill facility provides a much-needed late-afternoon shady location for parents and children seeking to escape their baking cottages.
Good on Cessnock council. Bridges Hill is an initiative of local staff, funded by a portfolio of grants and, in the main, built by council employees. Local government gets a raw deal in this nation and good projects need imagination and persistence to get across the line. This is one.
Still, the new facilities bring to mind that a raw deal is not unusual for kids growing up in the coalfields. Alternative activities in the Cessnock area don't come cheap. A visit by two adults and two children to the Hunter Valley Zoo costs a hefty $90, and $85 for the Hunter Valley Gardens. Free, high-quality, public facilities focused on kids are sorely needed everywhere in the Hunter.
This includes free, high-quality public pre-schools. The Australian standard for pre-school education is attendance by every child for a minimum 600 hours, or 15 hours a week, before entry to formal schooling. Yet the last census recorded only 64 per cent of four-year-olds in the Cessnock LGA as attending pre-school regularly.
One of the truths of education is that the intellectual and physical prowess of an adult is built on the level of learning accomplished in the infant years. It is bewildering that disadvantaged kids in Australian society receive significantly fewer resources in their pre-school years. The reverse should be true, no?
Good on Cessnock council. Bridges Hill is an initiative of local staff, funded by a portfolio of grants and, in the main, built by council employees.
Not surprising is that HSC outcomes across the Hunter are consistently poorer in districts where pre-school participation rates are low. A browse through the HSC tracker - search for 'hsc-2019-how-your-school-ranked' - shows starkly the education system isn't working well for Hunter youth. The poor level of engagement in post-school education and poor success in the labour market for our high school graduates are the direct consequences of poor schooling outcomes.
Who'd have thought, poor education experiences, poor jobs outcomes?
Besides joining happy kids at the Bridges Hill playground, we joined with seemingly happy mums, alongside a few happy dads and a load of grandparents. This is community at its best, big containers of fresh fruit for communal snacking, lots of chat, each one concerned for another's kids, loads of encouragement. It's worth remembering how well kids respond to shared parenting as much as they respond to each other's company.
Still, the active presence of the women at the park brings to mind the raw deal they get in their local labour market. The last census confirmed the low labour force participation rates for women in the Cessnock LGA. For those aged in their thirties, for example, job rates are 20 per cent lower than the not-so-high rates found in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. And it's hard to see where a stack of new local jobs will come from.
So there we were, perched under a cool tree watching our kids. A stone's throw away is the desk of MP for the Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon. From that desk Mr Fitzgibbon has been telling the nation that it is his duty to protect the economy of his electorate, to fix it in time, to prolong its role as the supply-end of the world's largest thermal coal chain.
But where is the bounty, this treasure chest of prosperity from coal? Poor jobs access, poor education outcomes, and poor jobs futures are the lot of women and children of the coalfields.