The power of strong foundations

Hannah Barber / 28 June 2017

It’s hard to escape a week at the office or even a dinner party conversation where the topic of education isn’t mentioned (typically just before the subject of house prices). There are numerous discussions about the merits of NAPLAN testing, whether or not you give a Gonski, the cost of tertiary education and of course, the never-ending debate around public verses private education. However, there appears to be one thing that is missing from these discussions, and that is the importance of quality early childhood education.

The most important part of a building is usually its foundations. A sporting team’s success is often determined in the pre-season. Companies typically undergo their most rapid growth during their early years before becoming mature. This same principle holds true for education and learning. Research powerfully demonstrates that children’s first five years are critical to their life trajectory. Physiologically, it is in these years – when the intellectual, emotional and social connections in the developing brain are being rapidly formed – that the biggest impact can be had. The notion that the real progress is made, or that gaps can be made up, in the later years of high school is sadly misplaced. Instead, we must start in the same way that we wish to continue.

The potential impact of quality early childhood education is so great that Professor James Heckman, the Nobel Prize winning economist from the University of Chicago, has become one of the profession’s most vocal advocates. His research has demonstrated that every dollar invested in high quality early childhood education returns 13% compared with investing in educational programs later in life.

These economic figures are compelling; however, education cannot and should not be justified in purely economic terms. The benefits for our broader society are clear, but the benefits of high quality early childhood education for an individual are just as convincing. With better health outcomes, increased school attainment, fewer criminal convictions, and most importantly, increased happiness and life satisfaction levels, quality early education can have an enormous impact on an individual’s life. It should be viewed as a fundamental human right.

However, this remarkable evidence is often overlooked for need of practical solutions by busy parents around the country. For the majority of the population, early childhood education in Australia is perceived as ‘childcare;’ a play-based program that allows parents to go back to work. Increased workforce participation is undeniably a good thing, but this overly narrow focus is unfortunate given early learning is of one of the most powerful economic and social levers that we have access to. Currently in Australia, 96% of children under the age of 5 are engaged in an early childhood service at some point before they begin school. In 2015, some 331,402 four year olds spent approximately 5 million hours in early childhood programs. Just imagine for a moment the opportunity that time, effectively spent, affords us to have a positive impact on future generations.

Significant policy gains in Australia have been made in this area in the past decade, which should be applauded in a political environment that often favours short term wins rather than long term vision. In 2009, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) identified the power of investing in early childhood education as well as the need to deliver the highest quality early learning programs to achieve this potential. Through the introduction of the National Quality Framework in 2009, COAG sought to increase the quality of educational service provision in a variety of ways. The impact of some of these reforms has been seen immediately, while others will become apparent gradually over time.

As the profession continues to reckon with and understand these notions of quality, there is a key role for the general public to play. For example, a focus on provision of quality early learning and development was one of the centerpieces of Australia’s largest philanthropic donation by Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation. The Foundation donated $75 million to initiatives to ensure every Australian child has the best possible chance to thrive, including the creation of a blueprint around the development of children in the critical early years.

If we continue to see ‘childcare’ as a cost rather than an investment, we risk neglecting one of the greatest gifts that we can provide to our children and the broader community. At your next dinner party or water cooler conversation, I encourage you to be the voice in the room for quality early childhood education in the hope that, as a community, we can build the strongest foundations for tomorrow.

Hannah Barber is an early childhood advocate and is currently working as a Kindergarten teacher at Gowrie Victoria, a leading early childhood organization in Melbourne. She is the 2017 Roth/Segal Harvard John Monash scholar and in August will commence a Master of Education (Human Development and Psychology) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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