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Children must be raised, not idolised

  • 08 March 2007

In a recent UNICEF report that analysed the well-being of children in economically advanced nations there were some rather unsettling results for Australia and the United Kingdom. The governments of both countries have been putting children at top of their policy agenda. Both have invested in early childhood research and programs. A range of new bureaucratic structures has been created to support the development of children and young people. But despite 10 years of advocacy, new policy direction and increased investment the progress has not been all positive.

The UNICEF study, Poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries, shows that when it comes to the overall health and well-being of children, Australia and Britain are near the middle and bottom of the list respectively. Peter Saunders from the Centre of Independent Studies argued in The Australian that being somewhere in the middle isn’t too bad. Considering recent investment, it indicates a poor return.

Britain was ranked last in the final summary against six key indicators, including material well-being, health and educational well-being. Australia was not included on this final list due to insignificant data.

Dr. Fiona Stanley, former Australian of the Year and child advocate, pointed out in a Radio National interview that we should be concerned that Australia is not able to provide the data to be assessed against all six key indicators. She is right. It means we don’t even have the data to assess some aspects of Australian children’s well-being.

Though Australia is not in the final summary ranking, Britain’s result is telling because the policy directions in both countries are similar. The policies being implemented are based, in part, on research by James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist whose work on investment in intensive early childhood programs has shown significant results. Essentially, Heckman’s argument is that for every dollar a government invests in programs for disadvantaged children, they will receive up to $17 in future returns as that child finds employment, avoids crime and is generally a solid contributor to civil society. Heckman’s research is good, but there are significant problems with the way it is being interpreted.

Heckman’s research has been used to justify investments across a broad range of policy ideas, and includes universal systems that support all children, like child heath nurses, and targeted programs to aid disadvantaged young children.

The basis of the policies is the principle