Bricks and mortar don't care for children


Rudd sitting on floor 'The real question is how to use the available funds wisely. The best evidence supports the policy prescription: Invest in the Very Young.' –James Heckman.

The Prime Minister's proposal of setting up 'child and parent centres' across Australia was endorsed by those attending the 2020 Summit. It is a big idea, but like the republic it isn't really a new idea. More significantly, the 'evidence-based' research that supports the idea is at best being misinterpreted and at worst ignored.

At the centre of the discussion is the name Dr James Heckman. Heckman was the Nobel Laureate for Economics in 2000. His work extends across human capital and productivity. He is interested in lifelong learning and this led him to research early childhood development.

It is his research into investment into early childhood development that has produced the paraphrase, 'for every dollar invested into the early years of a child's life, we save up to 'x' dollars in the long run'.

This is one of the most misunderstood and misused quotes I have come across in my time as a researcher. It is littered through the ALP's child and family policy documents. It is used by a vast number of early childhood professionals and advocates and used as a sound byte regularly by the media.

But it is being used incorrectly. No one appears to recognise the context in which Heckman made that statement.

The claim is based on an intensive research project and longitudinal studies from the United States. These studies, such as the Perry School Study, take young disadvantaged children and put them in early childhood development programs run by tertiary educated professionals at low child-teacher ratios for up to 40 hours a week until they start school.

The studies demonstrated that children in the intensive early childhood programs had substantially improved their opportunities and outcomes in later life. They were less likely to commit crime, more likely to finish high school, would earn more and so on.

In fact, for each dollar invested in those children, Heckman has established the government saves seven to nine dollars by the time they reach adulthood. In the Perry School Study, most of these returns came from reduced crime — a factor that won't apply to middle class Australian children.

Heckman's research targets children living in significant disadvantage. As a result, his conclusions are only relevant for children in similar target groups.

Even recently, in his 2007 paper titled 'The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children', Heckman and co-author Dimitriy V. Masterov conclude that while the research highlights a need for greater investment in disadvantaged children, 'none of this evidence supports universal preschool programs'.

To suggest Heckman's results justify an investment in children's service infrastructure is a poor argument. Heckman's conclusion actually argues that governments should be directing their early childhood dollars at children of significant disadvantage, to allow them to attend a large number of hours of childhood development support each week, with tertiary trained professionals, at very low ratios.

Instead Heckman's conclusions are being used to support a universal system that simply puts all children and family services in a similar location, without necessarily even investing in better staffing levels for childcare.

This doesn't mean 'child and parent centres' are not a good idea. But are they the best idea? Given the potential cost I'd prefer to see investment in reducing ratios in childcare centres by 2020 before I saw all these new buildings. Bricks and mortar don't care for my children, people do.

Here is the crux of this grand policy idea. It doesn't actually contribute much to improving our respect for children, particularly those children who most need the support. A one-stop shop is not going to make it any easier for an isolated mum without transport to get to the maternal and child health nurse. It won't provide better intervention supports for children with a disability. It won't get to the children who need it most — unless the first ten child and parent centres they build and staff are in remote communities in the Northern Territory.

All those early childhood advocates busily patting themselves on the back for getting their issues back on the front page of the policy book are engaged in a large bout of 'group think'. They should start asking more questions and demand more for the youngest Australians. Most of them know what Heckman's research is all about. So does Kevin Rudd — it is clearly written in the Council of Australian Government's Human Capital document. The 'Better Start for Children' section begins with another Heckman quote:

'If we don't provide disadvantaged young children with the proper environments to foster cognitive and non-cognitive skills, we'll create a class of young people without such skills, without motivation, without the ability to contribute to the larger society nearly as much as they could if they'd been properly nurtured from an early age.'

As Heckman says, 'The real question is how to use the available funds wisely.' Are we using them as wisely as possible? If you want to invest billions, why not start with adequate funding for child protection and services for children with a disability, Mr Rudd?

'The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children' (Heckman and Masterov)
The Perry Preschool Study

Daniel Donahoo Daniel Donahoo is the author of Idolising Children and a fellow with public policy think tank OzProspect. He consults on child and family policy and his work and ideas appear regularly in the Australian media.



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Existing comments

I agree ... and am very pleased to see what I experienced as an unease in my body expressed.

I also wonder about families that want to provide a home environment for children and not an institutionalised one, no matter how excellent they may or may not be ... how are their voices and choices heard and supported in this conversation?

mary kelson | 23 April 2008  

Except for the severely dysfunctional families surely, given Hart and Risely's research, suggests that investment, not in institutions but in parents, particularly mothers - better still potential mothers - would be more cost effective.

Richard Pickup | 23 April 2008  

Thank you for your clarity on this issue, Daniel Donahoo. I do wonder which children are going to be most advantaged by the proposed scheme. Even more importantly, which children won't be helped? We have an utterly unacceptable number of physically or psychologically abused children waiting for positive, timely and effective intervention in their lives. Are their families about to bring them along to the one-stop shop for help? I don't think so. And what happened for them at the 2020 Summit? Nothing!

Joan Seymour | 23 April 2008  

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