Sudhir Vadaketh | June 29th 2012 | @EG_LeadershipTE
As countries make the transition towards knowledge-based economies and increasingly compete on the basis of talent and human capital, they need to invest in their people. Yet such investment remains largely targeted at higher levels of education. Should it perhaps be redirected?
A growing body of research suggests that increased government investment in early childhood education, if directed well, can benefit society. These returns accrue in part to the children themselves—largely in the form of increased lifetime earnings—but more significantly to the wider society, in the form of reduced need for later remedial education and spending, as well as lower crime and less welfare reliance in later life, among other things.
“The data are really incontrovertible,” explains Sharon Kagan, a professor of early childhood and family policy at Columbia University in the US. “Three strands of research combine to support the importance of the early years. From neuro-scientific research, we understand the criticality of early brain development; from social science research, we know that high quality programmes improve children’s readiness for school and life; and from econometric research, we know that high quality programs save society significant amounts of money over time. Early childhood contributes to creating the kinds of workforces that are going to be needed in the twenty-first century.”
Against this backdrop, the EIU was commissioned by the Lien Foundation, a Singapore-based philanthropic organisation, to devise an index to rank preschool provision across 45 countries. The Nordic countries top the ranking, with Finland (1st), Sweden (2nd) and Norway (3rd) rated as having the world’s three best preschool environments. In total, 16 of the top 20 countries are European.
However, not all rich countries perform so well. Australia, Canada, Singapore and the US, for example, are all listed in the lower half of the Index. This is not to suggest that quality preschool programmes are lacking in these countries. But such schemes are not available or affordable to all strands of society, and minimum quality standards vary widely.
If these countries want to boost their knowledge economies, is increased preschool investment the answer?