There has been growing discussion in Australia about making it easier for families to access early childhood education programs. The new government in Canberra has promised to provide more funding to the sector. The Premiers of New South Wales and Victoria recently revealed plans to allow more children to receive at least two years of pre-school education.
Evidence from an array of studies dating back decades confirms the significant and sustained value to individuals, and to society as a whole, of ensuring children have access to high-quality early childhood education, prior to entering primary school. More importantly, the benefits of a child's participation in this accrue in the greatest measure to those coming from families with less-educated parents and lower household incomes.
The relevant evidence has been generated by longitudinal studies that track individuals over many years. Those who attend high-quality early childhood education services have been found to perform better at school, stay longer in school, attend tertiary institutions, obtain and remain in steady employment, avoid criminal behaviour, get married and stay married, and form families. They are also found to experience better physical and mental health later in their lives. These are significant benefits for the individual. And financially speaking, the gains to society are considerable, too. This led economist James Heckman to conclude: 'Early childhood development is perhaps the strongest investment we could make on a raw return-on-investment basis.
From a human rights perspective, we might say that universal access to high-quality education early in life is a powerful means of advancing the human rights of many citizens. Due to receiving this educational boost, they are more likely to be able to experience freedoms and opportunities throughout their lives. In the process, they are less likely to engage in actions that impose on the freedoms and opportunities of others. More positively, we might say that they contribute to the advancement of the good society, bringing more to the collective table than they take from it.
What is it about early childhood education that appears to be so vital for setting individuals on a positive trajectory, educationally and in other ways? Various answers have been offered. At the level of the individual child, the evidence suggests that children learn more through these early experiences about how to get along well with others and how to regulate their behaviour and their emotions. This sets them up for transitioning into the more formal learning settings found in primary school. Since the students are less likely to fall behind in their learning, this then reduces the likelihood of them engaging in disruptive classroom activities. It is certainly much more cost-effective and beneficial to invest in early education than in later remedial interventions targeted at poor literacy, school dropouts, and adults with limited basic skills.
Another body of evidence has noted that contact between children and their families and early childhood educational services allows professionals to more readily identify developmental, social or family-related problems. Those professionals can then arrange suitable additional support where necessary. It is also the case that socialisation opportunities for children and parents reduce the risk of social isolation, which can lead to a range of problems going undetected or undiagnosed; for example, a child with a health problem may receive the appropriate attention much earlier than would otherwise be the case.
There are wellbeing benefits for parents, too. For example, gaining some regular time apart from young children can be a big positive for primary caregivers, especially in terms of their mental health. In addition, placing young children in early childhood education services can allow parents to remain in touch with the labour market or continue their training. There are obvious positive flow-on effects for careers and for household income, and overall, greater resources are clearly beneficial for all members of the household.
The challenge for Australia is to increase access to such services for the families who are currently the most marginalised. These people are often of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. Those who have recently experienced migration to Australia are also at risk of social exclusion. To do so does not simply mean doing more of the same. The challenge is to create early childhood education settings that are culturally safe and appropriate. The history of Te Kohanga Reo – or Maori 'Language Nests'- in New Zealand since the 1970s shows that with political will these efforts can occur.
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