The success of higher education may depend on early childhood learning

For nearly nine years I was a member of Ireland’s National Competitiveness Council. During this time the Council at one point or another addressed most of the key economic and social issues affecting the country, and as you can imagine I frequently pushed the higher education agenda. The Council on several occasions emphasised the importance of discovery and learning in universities and colleges and issued recommendations in which this could be funded and made sustainable.

But in some ways I believe that the most important recommendation to which I contributed was not about universities, but about pre-school education. In the Council’s annual Competitiveness Challenge report in 2004, it offered the following observation:

‘Pre-primary development is a key determinant of performance at all levels of education: primary, secondary and tertiary. Research led by the Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman has shown that the decision to remain in school, and consequently the ability to proceed to third level, is strongly influenced by development in the pre-primary years. Much learning occurs in the first six years of life and especially in the first three years. The Heckman research suggests that development during early childhood affects cognitive abilities, motivation and social skills in later life, and is a more important determinant of subsequent performance at primary or secondary level education than the standard of tuition or family income constraints during those periods.’

Having pointed out that Ireland’s investment in pre-school education was lower per capita than in virtually any other developed country, the Council then made the following recommendation:

‘The Minister for Education and Science should develop a programme for the roll out of pre-primary initiatives targeted towards areas of social and economic disadvantage. This should not be financed out of existing education programmes, but rather from a re-allocation of resources from other wider labour market programmes that are no longer needed in the current economic environment.’

Having made this recommendation, the Council followed it up with active lobbying of government ministers, none of whom disagreed with the analysis and the recommendation. But they did nothing. Over the seven years that have followed no new initiative and no funding has been introduced. Early childhood disadvantage still determines the educational fate of far too many children. It is still likely that most of those whose home lives or early private educational experiences don’t provide significant intellectual stimulation will under-achieve in education and will be trapped in the vicious cycle of disadvantage.

While Ireland’s performance is particularly dishonourable in this regard, it is not unique, and other countries also fail to focus on this vital aspect of social and educational policy. In California voters recently rejected a proposal that would have funded and made compulsory pre-school education for all children. China has also expressed concerns about the weakness of its early childhood education. In Britain there is state support for pre-school education, but too few children have access to it.

The risk is that now, during a time of economic stress, governments will be even less likely to provide proper support. But in fact, if the recession is not to lead to much greater educational disadvantage and resulting social issues, this is the time to develop early childhood provision most aggressively. Not doing so will not only create more disadvantage, it will also be hugely costly to the taxpayer who will have to pick up the bill for the problems caused by this neglect; it has been estimated that every dollar spent worldwide on early childhood education saves $7 later. It is time to act.

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7 Comments on “The success of higher education may depend on early childhood learning”

  1. Vincent Says:

    For what my comment is worth. I believe that we’re going at this in the wrong way. It’s not the disadvantage we should be flagging but the advantage. Disadvantage is a nebulous concept for most people and one that’s impossible to win against. But should the battle be couched in terms of doing the best for the kid. Then there is not a competitive parent and that’s every bloodyminded Irish person -and that’s all of us- on the planet that would not be attempting WAR&PEACE on the kid in utero.
    The big problem here is that there is a concept of education encapsulated in the term Nobs and Navvies. One that was generated over 150 years and one far more insidious than the system in England with her Grammar schools. Actually, the system in Ireland is designed to be the exact opposite of the ancient English one in it’s conception. Smashing this problem will require something of that mindset of the Gaelscoileanna.


    • I agree that a positive frame of mind will help here, but it will need to be targeted (in the sense that everything else is unaffordable), and this is where disadvantage has to guide the policy. But of course it can be expressed in various ways.

    • Al Says:

      Isnt more that we seem to be rooted in the equality agenda, and have the fear of being accused of inequality should anything radical be proposed?


  2. Education Economics 101 assignment: There are a lot of people at the moment either advocating that the state spend more on specific things (or not cut spending in specific areas). However, we all know that the state has limited resources and that any increases in one area will need to be matched with cuts elsewhere. If education is treated as one system, to what extent could we cut spending in post-secondary, if we could achieve higher learning outcomes at the end of secondary by investing more in pre-school, primary and secondary education?

    I used to have great fun arguing to my colleagues that if the state spent more on education before the students got to us we would be able to handle far bigger numbers and bring our unit costs down. This generally did not go down well.

    Back to the question: If we increase spending on pre-schooling, where will we cut?


    • Probably few of us are going to volunteer cuts. But if you ask me where the state should prioritise its expenditure, then notwithstanding my own higher education role I would not hesitate to suggest it should be pre-primary, followed by primary.


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