Why early childhood education is a good start

Michele Petochi
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The Forum:Blog has prepared a special series on “Resilient Dynamism”, the main theme of 2013’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Michele Petochi, director of Academic Networks at the World Economic Forum, explains how education can help enhance a country’s position for both attributes.

The economic and social conditions for resilient dynamism can be created from a very early stage. Building on the intuition of pioneers such as John Dewey and Maria Montessori (the latter’s 60th anniversary was celebrated this year), there is now striking scientific evidence of the social and economic benefits of early childhood education. Early education has the potential to train children to become citizens who are more likely to succeed in school and to contribute to society in their later lives through enhanced economic productivity, and taxes.

Yet, guaranteeing access and quality of early childhood education is incredibly challenging. That resonates globally: from Germany to China to Nigeria. Apart from a few exceptions like in Scandinavia, access to early childhood education remains limited and targets set at the national or regional level are broadly unmet. Quality is equally challenging; services often boil down to informal, non-regulated home-based centres or hybrid day-care solutions offering working parents a parking spot for children that are useful but not comparable to an educational experience.

Why then, if the social and economic dividends of educating the youngest children are too great to be ignored, does policy and ultimately investment in early childhood education lag so far behind science?

One reason is simply culture and information. A mix of mentality and ignorance at all levels still doesn’t make early childhood education really seen as an opportunity of long-term investment in human capital for an individual, a family and society at large. Rather, it is still seen as optional, or simply as an optional cost. Culture also has an impact on the quality of teachers. A general lack of professional recognition and respect, relegating the job to basic day-care, underpaid and undertrained, does not help make what should be a beautiful, essential profession appealing to enough strong candidates. This is a vicious cycle.

Cost is also a huge issue: good early childhood education – no matter whether public or private, or both, and no matter the methodology – is very expensive for everybody (families, cities, countries, corporations). In addition, it is something policy-makers can hardly justify, as its positive effects are too long-term versus a standard political horizon.

Moreover, policies for early childhood education may conflict with other policies. For example, Germany is trying, on one hand, to promote and subsidize early childhood education to complement the growth of the workforce by enabling women to work longer hours. On the other hand, having to address low birth rates through policies that extend maternity leave ultimately risks diverting support and funds from early childhood education because, in the end, mothers would stay at home more.

In addition, weak governance and inefficient organization may hold countries back from improving the provision of early childhood education. For example, early education is often treated not as an education issue but as a family and childcare issue because of the urgency of securing day-care, and the ministry in charge is usually social affairs, not education. Misallocation of funds, ineffective decentralization and other issues also affect early childhood education provision.

These and other challenges take the emphasis away from the notion of child development through education and the opportunity of investing in it.

About Resilient Dynamism
To be resilient is to be able to adapt, withstand shocks and recover from them. Future growth in this new context requires dynamism – bold vision and even bolder action. As the theme of 2013’s World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Resilient Dynamism refers to these combined attributes as fundamental concepts for leadership in coming years.

Author: Michele Petochi is Director of Academic Networks at the World Economic Forum. Assistance provided by Nathanial Lurie of Brandeis University. 

Image: A teacher write on a white board REUTERS/Brian Snyder


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