Why early education is an investment, not a cost

21 Jan 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Jan 2022

Pic: Unsplash, Picsea

When the Fair Start report into educational disadvantage was published last year it was widely praised. The then education minister Peter Weir described it as: "One of the most important reports I have overseen in my time".

However there are now signs that it may not be enacted.

Earlier this week the department’s finance director Gary Fair told MLAs  that measures to tackle educational underachievement are at risk without more money for education in the executive budget.

Mr Fair said despite his proposed budget showing an increase over the next three years "without additional funding it would be extremely difficult if not impossible for the department to take forward key actions."

If Fair Start were to fall by the wayside this would not just be a disaster for all the children affected by continuing to entrench disadvantage, it will have a severe economic price too. For it is a classic example of an area where the right, targeted investment now will provide a clear, measurable financial payback for the whole lives of all who benefit from it.

The problem is not the long-term affordability of sensible measures, but our inability to factor this into budgeting, compounded by the way spending is allocated which contributes to siloed thinking and inter-departmental rivalry in government.

What makes this even more frustrating is that this is one area of policy where we already have enough data to not only come to definitive conclusions about the benefits of the right policies we can also quantify them in financial terms.

For example we know that the highest rate of return comes from investing as early as possible – from birth – in childhood development. The consensus is that the first 1,000 days of life are the most important of all.

This takes us out of the classroom, and out of pre-school and into the home if we really want to transform outcomes for future generations. It becomes about how we help parents to support their children to thrive during this critical period.

It also takes us into a budgetary no-man land in educational terms. How does this work, and who funds it?

In Summer 2019 a report was published by academics Madison Kerr and Jon Franklin. It  puts the economic cost across the UK of failing to create the right foundation for our pre-school children at more than £300 million for every cohort that makes its way through education and employment.

So if we are looking at the UK’s current population of pre-schoolers that’s £1.2 billion and that’s not counting all those failed by the system in the past.

These calculations are based on current figures, that show that 14% of 3-year-olds in the UK at-risk of having vulnerable early language skills fail to improve their early language skills to above the at-risk threshold.

More than  95% of the costs are likely to be in the form of decreased lifetime earnings for the children, with the remainder arising through increased costs for Special Educational Needs, involvement in the criminal justice system and demand on mental health services.

This has broader implication as well. If people earn less they pay less in tax, they spend less in local shops, they are more likely to be in food and fuel poverty, to develop mental ill health, and to become economically inactive.

And as automation accelerates it is likely that for the current cohorts falling behind in education will come at an even higher price than it has done, and in a broader sense economies whose education systems fail to produce highly-skilled workforces will slip further behind.

The good news is that this research suggests how this might be turned around.

“If each of those 3-year-olds at-risk of vulnerable language skills did just one additional home learning activity per day such as reading, playing with letters or singing songs per day, it is estimated that it could improve the early language skills of children, resulting in approximately £170 million in benefits for each cohort of 3-year-olds.

 “If the average 3-year-old at-risk of vulnerable language skills did two additional home learning activities per day, estimates suggest it could be sufficient to lift them out of the at-risk of vulnerable language skills group.”

Jonathan Douglas, Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust said of the findings: “ A child’s early language and communication skills are not just the foundation of their literacy but influence a lifetime of social, emotional and economic outcomes. And, crucially, it is not just early years settings that create these skills but the stories and rhymes a child hears at home, the words games, the language they are exposed to in the context of the family that has a lifetime impact.

“These early experiences are the root cause of much social inequity - middle and upper-income children are simply more likely to experience language rich early childhoods. But boosting the home learning environment offers protection against the effects of disadvantage for a child and is an important enabler of social mobility. The simple actions of sharing rhymes, stories and talking to babies can change society.”

One of the most important aspects of this is the relationship between childhood development  and social inequality. There’s been research on this too.

 Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are developmentally nine months behind children from wealthier backgrounds by age three. This gap accelerates. By the age of five there’s a 19 month difference in school readiness between the most and least advantaged children. This is not a level playing field and closing that gap is critical.

Fair Start is excellent on this, stressing that support for families, and indeed communities needs to be continuous. The report states: “We want a seamless journey from pregnancy to pre-school, school and beyond, where every child is provided with the appropriate level of support needed in a timely and appropriate manner in order to realise their potential.”

At its heart is a Reducing Educational Disadvantage programme – this would, bring what it calls a  ‘whole community approach to education’ where the greatest concentration of effort would be brought to bear on those areas with the greatest concentration of underachievement. This would involve partnering with the voluntary and community sector.

Fair Start is too important to lose. The evidence in its favour is overwhelming, its potential life-changing benefits cannot be cast aside. It is not a cost it is an investment. Failure to act upon it will not just fail those youngsters who need support now, but generations to come.



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