Nobel Laureate James Heckman’s rallying cry of “We cannot afford to postpone investing in children until they become adults, nor can we wait until they reach school age – a time when it may be too late to intervene” is convincing, but the much needed investment in early childhood education remains a hard sell because of the significant delay between policy and practice change. Among OECD countries, for example, the Nordic countries invest between 1.4% and 2.3% of GDP in early childhood education. Other countries invest less: for example Austria, Hungary and France between 0.5% and 1%, and Switzerland (although that may differ from canton to canton) 0.2% of GDP. Trends and efforts towards greater public and private investment in early childhood education are beginning to take hold, including through new players and services supporting the sector, but are not sufficient to handle the scale of the challenge.
What can be done to boost investment? First, more and more people ought to realize that early childhood education is an opportunity and to that end make sure values, vision, policy, infrastructure, human resources, creative solutions and all the other enabling factors become available. That requires a long-term, non-ideological, political vision. Sweden, for example, was able to align with that vision decades ago and is now able to deliver on early childhood education because it looked at it as a long-term opportunity and challenge. That helped create the premises for long-term investment.
Second, institutional barriers must be addressed. To do so, the integration of early childhood education into the education system seems to be important. According to UNESCO, countries where early childhood education falls under the ministry of education (for example Norway, Sweden, Brazil, Jamaica, New Zealand and Slovenia) have done better: more qualified teachers, lower teacher-child ratios, more resources and better infrastructure. More countries may consider testing the idea of early childhood education as part of their overall education policy.
Third, improving teacher qualification is essential, the conversation having to focus not only on training, but also more deeply on the promotion of early childhood workers as equally fundamental to the education of their students and deserving of the same status as other teachers.
Fourth, policies should be holistic, recognizing and building trust with families and teachers as an integral part of the human capital equation and making sure early childhood education offers multiple wins, for example in public health and social integration. Interesting examples of holistic approach include Chile and New Zealand.
Fifth, a way to reduce costs has to be found. That is a challenge because, by default, we want the best for our children and that comes at a high price. A remedy might be to bring down costs through the economy of scale that an increasing number of slots might help to create. However, that remains to be seen for chains and networks larger than a few schools, but should those economies become possible, imagine the implications of such growth.
All the above – and much more – require coordination and collaboration within and at all levels: teachers, parents, and the public and private sectors. Coordination between stakeholders is paramount as it includes dialogue, agenda setting, policy design and all the other ingredients needed to boost a strategic long-term investment for the next generations and the global economy.
Author: Michele Petochi is Director of Academic Networks at the World Economic Forum.
Image: Colored pencils are seen inside a wooden box REUTERS/Michaela Rehle