Applying the Population Health Approach to school planning to support children's early development

Author: Ashleigh Collier

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 24 Nov 2025.

Collier, Ashleigh, 2022 Applying the Population Health Approach to school planning to support children's early development, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Background: The population approach is increasingly recognised for reducing healthcare demand and contributing to health system sustainability. However, its application to education could also benefit leaders and educators in school settings who already apply some of these concepts in their work. Currently, there has been no application of the population health approach to education. This PhD thesis explores why, how, and in what contexts can a population health approach be applied to school planning to support children's early development?

Methods: This thesis reports on six studies that sought to address the gap in the literature by applying the population approach to education. These studies included: a systematic review and critical interpretive synthesis of the existing literature on the population health approach in education (Study 1); a document analyses of six Australian education planning and curriculum documents, using an a priori coding framework specifically developed to assess the extent to which the population health approach was present in the documents (Study 2); 20 interviews with leaders and educators from schools across two Australian jurisdictions (Study 3); 11 interviews with policy-makers across two jurisdictions directly involved in the development of Australian education policy and supports, analysed using Shiffman’s and Smith’s political science theory (Study 4); a linear regression analysis of South Australian students to identify schools whose students performed above or below expectations on Year 3 NAPLAN tests (Study 5); and a mixed-methods analysis of 35 schools and their planning documents to identify whether schools that performed better than expected reported a greater number of population health approach elements (Study 6).

Findings: This thesis has demonstrated that incorporating population health approaches into planning within school sites can improve academic development. Integrating each element into school and policy planning allowed for a more coordinated approach to supporting children's needs, sharing resources, and informed decision-making. Using data to inform decision-making and an informed understanding of how children's past experiences have an impact on their progress allowed leaders and educators to develop appropriate approaches and work with families to support their needs. A conceptual model of the approach (see, p.162) demonstrates the elements involved and their intersection. Addressing the factors that impact upon learning at both the individual and community levels in the early years will ensure that students are better prepared to overcome the educational barriers to success.

The findings from Study 1 demonstrated that although a population health approach to planning does not explicitly exist within education, it would indeed be possible to adapt the approach to prior-to-school and school educational planning, and that doing so is likely to be advantageous for children's development. The findings from Study 2 showed that elements of the population health approach do exist within various educator frameworks; however, their inclusion was often limited

and superficial. Study 3 showed that State and Federal policies acted as both barriers and facilitators to implementing the population health approach within schools. Policies in some cases did, however, restrict how sites were able to address the social and emotional needs of children. Data-informed decisions and priorities, and the work of leaders and educators across jurisdictions underpinned the application of the population health approach within schools. The findings from Study 4 demonstrated support for early investments in child development and an understanding that schools could play an essential role in supporting families holistically, with principals acting as influential leaders within the community. The findings from Study 5 demonstrated that some schools shift children's developmental trajectories before they sit their first NAPLAN assessment in Year 3. Study 6 found that schools that reported on a larger number of activities that reflected the population health approach were more likely to shift children's academic trajectories and improve academic outcomes in literacy and numeracy. The model was highly predictive of schools that performed above expectations on NAPLAN reading, and was most helpful when at least five school documents were assessed. Finally, school annual reports were the most predictive of whether a school performed better than expected, particularly in NAPLAN reading.

Implications: This research is the first to convert the population health approach to a quantifiable framework for education and test the predictive capability of the approach, as measured by school scores. The results showed that children's academic trajectories could be shifted before their first NAPLAN assessment in Year 3, further supporting the economic benefits of investing in education in the early years. These findings are of great significance to the education sector, as they demonstrate that schools that include more elements of the population health approach in their work, as reported in their site documents, are more likely to shift student outcomes between the first year of full-time school and their NAPLAN reading and numeracy tests in Year 3.

Keywords: population health approach, population approach, Australian Early Development Census, AEDC, school planning, education, early development, childrens early development, Australian education, NAPLAN

Subject: Health Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Kerry Bissaker