Sing&Grow – to Every State and Territory — Interview with Kate Williams


Dr Kate Williams has a broad view of the organisation and an inspired vision for its future in the landscape of early childhood and family support across Australia. At the core of her expansive outlook is a passionate belief in the value of music therapy and the innovative Sing&Grow program.

A graduate of the University of Queensland’s postgraduate music therapy course, Kate was first introduced to Sing&Grow when previous supervisor and inaugural Sing&Grow director, Dr Vicky Abad approached her to join the team in 2001. Embarking overseas with her partner, Kate turned down the offer. One year later, Kate returned from overseas and took on the role of Acting Director of Sing&Grow, which, in 2002, was delivering services in Brisbane, Gympie, the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast and Ipswich.

With federal funding on offer under the children’s wellbeing and development Invest to Grow program, and mentored by CEO Mark Brooke and Vicky Abad, Kate was responsible for authoring a funding submission. Completed with meticulous operational detail, the application’s extent was larger than her PhD thesis.

"We decided to go for an application which would see Sing&Grow expand from its very humble Brisbane-based beginnings into every state and territory across Australia ... It was such a great opportunity early in my career. I had no fear, deep down inside I thought we wouldn’t get this, you’ve got a 20-something-year-old writing her first grant application, and dreaming big ... basically putting the Brisbane-based program on steroids and scaling up. We included an evaluation budget and because I’m so systems and policy and process oriented, I had written policies and tightened up how we surveyed parents. That evidence became absolutely pivotal in getting the national funding."

What Kate had considered to be a ‘pipe dream’, was now a reality brought to life through innovative thought, meticulous planning and a mandate to expand nationally through federal funding.

"I went from Acting Brisbane Director to Deputy National Director and Director for Queensland and the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. Vicky returned from her overseas secondment to take up National Director. We appointed a New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory Director and a Director for Victoria and Tasmania. We were a fantastic team."

3G3A0530-1Pictured: A reunion event held to capture past member stories on film, 2023.
Top row: Ebonny Hamilton, Julia Oreopoulos, Graeme Walker, Gloria Sherlock, Dan Marais, Kate Williams, Liz Upham.
Bottom row: Elissa Howieson, Cheryl Sutherland, Gayle Spranklin, Rona Wilks, Debra Wardle.

The team travelled Australia to encourage uptake of the program, making contact with playgroup associations and key stakeholders and delivering the program locally, a process that was not always smooth.

"We were funded for a national program that was financed and run through a Queensland company. Working collaboratively with the other state and territory playgroup organisations was not without its challenges ... we couldn’t just work with playgroup families; we were contracted to reach the at risk and disadvantaged families who were not part of playgroup. Mark Brooke argued that the funding had been awarded to Playgroup Queensland and it is a national program ... We did get some pushback, but we made some really good relationships and had an excellent uptake from agencies referring and partnering with us to deliver services to families."

The funding also came with the mandate to spend 10-15% of the budget on research and evaluation. The move to an evidence-based approach with a clinical analysis of services was pivotal for Playgroup Queensland. Kate was appointed lead researcher and set about employing the required external evaluator.

"I had a bit of hubris and courage as a 20-something year-old. I literally found leading academics in the area from UQ, Griffith and QUT and interviewed them ... QUT Professors Jan Nicholson and Donna Berthelsen got the contract and worked closely with us to write many research papers. We completed a three-year study with over 800 families looking at the outcomes of Sing&Grow."

Aside from gaining the initial funding, Kate considers the publication of the extensive study to be a career highlight. Together with breaking down barriers and providing at-risk families with a ‘soft entry’ to parenting support, Kate believes the evidence-based approach was critical to the ongoing success of Sing&Grow.

"We made more strides than other services with the same funding, strides in testing out ways to evaluate the program by disregarding methods that weren’t appropriate for the client and piloting more robust methods ... We had evidence and we sold the innovativeness and uniqueness of the program ... it has sustained federal government funding, is the largest group family music therapy program internationally and has the biggest research base ... it just hit the right chord. I’m super proud of Sing&Grow."

3G3A0518Kate Willaims (right) with Elissa Howieson (left) at the reunion event held to capture past member stories on film, 2023.

Kate moved from the Sing&Grow team to take up the inaugural Research & Policy Manager position for Playgroup Queensland, and later resigned to complete her PhD. However, she continued her involvement, being contracted as the external evaluator of various smaller research and evaluation studies. In 2022, Kate returned to Play Matters as Executive Manager - Operations. Her vision for the future is one based on the premise that playgroup services and Sing&Grow are an ‘untapped oil reserve’ in providing access, equity and support to all families in the early childhood landscape.

"We can diversify our income streams beyond government funding to philanthropic investment and by growing our own commercial income, primarily by other organisations buying in Sing&Grow. But that’s not the only expertise that we can gain revenue from ... we can leverage our expertise in training others and also in resource development, and that would be nationally. We have the most amazing people and amazing approaches to service delivery in parenting support, early childhood and community development and we can leverage that into the future ... We really need to assert ourselves and be a key player."

This interview was conducted and compiled by Allison Paterson

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