The smartest way to spend taxpayer dollars
Did I tell you that my grandson, fast approaching his second birthday and not many months away from losing his status as our one and only grandchild, is a budding genius? His educational development is supervised by his father, who, being a doctor, started with identifying parts of the body. My grandson’s always being quizzed, and loves showing off how much he knows.
Already he can count – provided you don’t test him too closely above two or three – and, courtesy of Play School, can sing the alphabet song, whether or not he’s invited to. He misses no more than a few of the letters, and is always careful to sing zed rather than zee.
Do I worry about how he’ll manage to scratch out a living in the looming, frightening world of robots and artificial intelligence? No I don’t. Not with the parents he’s got.
For centuries the great advantage has been seen as inherited wealth. But, as The Economist magazine pointed out a few years ago, in the knowledge economy it’s probably just as advantageous, maybe more, to inherit your intelligence from two highly educated, well-paid, education-conscious and bookish parents.
Of course, not every Aussie kid is as fortunate as any grandchild of mine. Which is why I worry a lot about the continuing high high-school dropout rate. Join the workforce without even a good grasp of the basics and the rest of your working life is likely to be “problematic”, as mealy mouthed academics say.
It’s also why I get so annoyed with politicians – and Treasury and Finance econocrats – who regard early education as just another of the outstretched hands that must be given something, but never enough to fully exploit its potential to improve our wellbeing, social as well as economic.
The good news is that Simon Birmingham, federal Minister for Education and Training, announced over the weekend the government’s decision to spend $440 million extending for a year the “national partnership agreement” on universal access by four-year-olds to early childhood education, while federal and state ministers continue “negotiating” (haggling over) a new long-term agreement.
The bad news is that, when it comes to making sure all children attend preschool, we started much later than most of the other rich countries, and aren’t catching up nearly as fast as we would be if we had more sense.
Our politicians on both sides think their interests are best served by using the limited funds available to placate as many interest groups as possible, rather than spending money where it’s likely to yield the most lasting benefit.
Our econocrats ought to be encouraging their masters to spend more wisely, but if they are it’s news to me. They seem to think it their job to disapprove of all extra spending equally. Not working well so far, guys.
There are no magic bullets in government spending, but putting money into early education – whether by lifting the quality of childcare, or beefing up preschool – comes a lot closer than most of the other things governments spend on.
We’ve known it for decades, but the evidence keeps growing. According to the Ontario early learning study, “the early years from conception to age six have the most important influence of any time in the life cycle on brain development and subsequent learning, behaviour and health”.
Early experiences and stimulating, positive interactions with adults and other children are far more important for brain development than previously realised, it says.
According to a paper on early childhood education, issued last year by Dr Stacey Fox and others, of the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University, “investing in early learning is a widely accepted approach, backed by extensive evidence, for governments and families to foster children’s development, lay the foundations for future learning and wellbeing, and reduce downstream expenditure on health, welfare and justice”.
While all children benefit from high-quality early learning, research also shows that children experiencing higher levels of disadvantage benefit the most, and can even catch up to their more advantaged peers, the paper says.
In an earlier Mitchell report, Fox says that nearly a quarter of Australian children arrive at school with significant vulnerabilities – in their knowledge and communication, their social skills and emotional wellbeing, or in their physical health.
Here’s a surprise: a child’s risk of being developmentally vulnerable is closely, but inversely, correlated with their socio-economic status.
After five or six years, we’ve got close to achieving universal access by four-year-olds to a potential 15 hours a week of preschool. The only state dragging the chain is NSW (yeah, but look how much bigger its budget surplus is).
But kids from disadvantaged homes are less likely to be getting the full 15 hours. And there’s strong evidence that two years of preschool – that is, starting at three – yields more than twice the benefit.
British research shows 16 year olds who attended at least two years of preschool were three times more likely to take a higher academic pathway after leaving school.
It’s easier to get kids up to speed in preschool than at any later level of education. Clearly, the smart way to improve the performance of the whole system is to start at the bottom. Make sure we get preschool right, and the benefits will flow on to schools, TAFE and uni.
Nah, too much trouble. Let’s just give ourselves a tax cut. My grandkids will do fine.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.