On ‘being’ and ‘becoming’—why the economic argument for early learning matters

For decades early learning professionals, researchers and early childhood advocates have talked about the evidence that children benefit from quality early learning. Yet when most Australians think of what young children need they still say they need to be at home with a parent, and if that is not possible, early childhood education and care (ECEC) is a necessary alternative that only needs to be safe and clean. Indeed, many people believe that ECEC is too expensive because of regulation and want cheaper alternatives, such as home-based care, because they do not understand the importance of rich learning experiences for young children.

This is what social research conducted in Australia by the Frameworks Institute confirmed in 2014.

To change public opinion we need a national campaign to increase understanding of the benefits of early learning. Early Learning: Everyone Benefits is that national campaign.

To succeed in getting politicians and economic advisors to see the true value of quality early learning, as a sector we will need to engage services and educators to talk to families with persuasive arguments about the value of early learning. We also want to engage with families directly and hear the voice of children in this campaign.

We know that early childhood professionals care deeply about the wellbeing of all children and work to promote their rights both within service settings and more broadly in society.

The communication research by the Frameworks Institute found that the most persuasive argument for people not involved in early learning is to hear about what’s in it for them and the rest of society—they like to hear that investing in quality early learning increases our future prosperity as a nation and our wellbeing as a society.

That’s why our campaign is called ‘Early Learning: EVERYONE BENEFITS’.

It is understandable that some in the early childhood sector feel uncomfortable when arguments are made about the collective economic benefits of early childhood education—especially when these benefits are often based on increasing the workforce participation of parents.  

However, arguments about economic benefits are not incompatible with arguments about children’s rights and wellbeing. It is possible to recognise that investing in high-quality early childhood education and care can deliver both benefits to children and benefits to the economy if we get the policy and program settings right.  

Let’s be clear, this is not an argument to say that all young children (including babies) are better off in education and care services rather than being at home with a loving and competent parent. ECA supports parents to spend as much time at home with their children as they can manage and has been a strong advocate of policies and programs that support this, including paid parental leave.   

That said, when parents need or want to work, services should be high quality and provide children with rich early learning that amplifies their development. It is also well established now that all children will benefit from engaging in at least one year of preschool education, led by a qualified teacher, in the period before they transition to school. This can make a positive difference to long-term educational outcomes and enhance the transition to school. For vulnerable and disadvantaged children, two years are better than one year—this can help them to catch up to their peers and start school on a more equal footing, with better chances of long-term educational achievement.

The economic benefits that flow from enhancing children’s long-term educational outcomes are much higher than the immediate benefits of increasing workforce participation. However, they are harder to quantify and do not fit within budget cycles of three to four years. The economic benefits of enabling parents to engage in paid work are much more immediate and easier to measure. 

It is worth understanding that the decisions by the government to invest in children’s services are made by a group called the Expenditure Review Committee (ERC), also known as ‘the razor gang’. The ERC is primarily made up of economic ministers (Prime Minister, Treasurer, Finance Minister etc). One of the best ways to convince this group to invest in children’s wellbeing is by putting early childhood education and care in economic terms.

This has not always been easy. Eva Cox is right to point out that the workforce participation arguments for investing in ECEC that began in the 1970s had some unintended consequences, with the government prioritising children of working parents above those without working parents in early childhood programs. This is even enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Article 18(3). And we are still fighting this issue today over the Government’s proposed activity test that excludes children based on their parent’s activity.


Children’s becoming

The good news is that there is even stronger evidence on the economic benefits of human capital formation that crucially occurs in early childhood. We can use this to overshadow the workforce participation arguments. Human capital is the skills and knowledge of our population and is a powerful driver of economic growth and productivity. The human capital argument says that the most rapid period of human capital formation is during early childhood, and means that children’s wellbeing in early childhood is not only good for them but is also good for the economy. In its purest form we are advocating for the crucial role that quality early learning can play in a child’s whole life—current and future.

The Early Years National Early Childhood Development Strategy recognises that how a child develops has consequences for the rest of their life—and for our future prosperity:

Children are also important for their future contribution to society—as the next generation of leaders, workers, parents, consumers and members of communities. Their ability to participate fully in society as adults will be largely shaped by their childhood experiences. Children who have a good start in life are more likely to develop the capabilities that will better equip Australia to compete in a global society.

To put in the terms of the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), children’s becoming has economic implications.

Becoming: Children’s identities, knowledge, understandings, capacities, skills and relationships change during childhood. They are shaped by many different events and circumstances. Becoming reflects this process of rapid and significant change that occurs in the early years as young children learn and grow. It emphasises learning to participate fully and actively in society (DEEWR, 2009, p. 7).

Human capital development is a powerful argument to invest in improving participation in quality early learning—and the wages of early childhood professionals. For example, an earlier PWC report commissioned by Goodstart found that vulnerable children’s participation in quality early learning alone would add $13.3 billion to GDP by 2050 from human capital formation.

Ideally everybody (every politician, plumber and CEO) would value early learning because it is a good thing for children. But when we communicate with these audiences about early childhood development they listen to economic arguments. And this is borne out by the research.

Children’s wellbeing and the economic benefits of early learning are compatible. Children are not only being, but also becoming, and if we can present government with a powerful economic argument for investment in human capital, then we can ensure more children can benefit from access to quality early learning.  

Interestingly the children who benefit the most from accessing early learning at least two days/week also generate the greatest increase to GDP as they move through school with improved results and improve their chances of finding steady work once they leave.


Reference

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, being & becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra: DEEWR.

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