• Opinion
  • November 8, 2018
  • 6 minutes
  • 2

How a billion dollar pot could change early childhood education

Opinion: If funding was not a constraint, how would we think about early childhood?

This opinion piece was written by Tarun Varma. It also appears in our early childhood newsfeed.


Governments and the development sector are beginning to recognise the need for investment in early childhood education. Based on years of research in social mobility, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, outlined a £30 million ($39 m) capital bidding round for innovation in education starting in early childhood. The follow-on effects of such a move to mobilise capital are immense.

The MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change grant is a $100 million grant to encourage change in early education in humanitarian settings. It builds on what we know works — good content, backed by home visits and re-imagined child development centres.

As larger investments in education become common, we need to rethink how a big chunk of capital can be deployed.

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Early education support is fragmented across maternal support, childcare, pre-school and transition to school. Governments spend millions under many budget lines. If we motivate medium or large economies like Colombia or Indonesia to nudge ECD spending towards 1.92% of GDP like Sweden (see table) — how should governments spend that multi-billion dollar revenue stream?

Thinking about billion dollar budgets to change ECD is not a novel thought. A 2016 Bridgespan report, focused on the US, outlined a vision summarised in figure one below.

Here the spotlight on technology-led innovation overwhelms the accurate diagnosis that the sector needs high quality adult-child interactions, scale and processes of rigorous yet simple evaluations. It assumes that VC led scale can be successful.

Education is a wicked problem. Improvement requires participation from multiple stakeholders. It is buffeted by immense change outside the sector, including the evolution of consumer technology and urbanisation, which, for example, affect how families pass on child rearing skills. As Sonja Giese, Executive Director of Innovation Edge, says, this sector needs bridging capital, i.e. funds to improve feasible concepts before they are ready for scale.

Hence, a billion dollars needs to play a few roles.

Firstly, we need to invest in group based care. We know high quality adult-child interactions in group-based care, for children from two years onwards, make a big difference in early childhood learning. This is hard to scale, since it is people-based. We need an ongoing revenue commitment to ensure good pay and working conditions for group-based care, attests Naomi Eisenstadt, the first director of Sure Start.

Secondly, we should redesign evaluation for ease of analysis. Existing tools for measuring early childhood settings and interactions are intensive to administer and require complicated analysis. Re-designing measures to be easier to administer and so that we’re able to spit out analysis fast (think machine learning) needs investment.

Third, innovate close to the problem. Because we learn through human interaction, tech innovation requires an online-offline combination. For example, EasyPeasy in the UK takes high quality play experiences to parents through an app. It invests in adults to interact with children. The high quality element is in the experience. The cost saving is in the delivery. Jurisdictions should fund an ecosystem that encourages innovative ideas to compete with group-based care. It is only then that evaluations can be applied equally.

Fourth, enable demand. The above are building blocks for changing supply. A large pot of money can also enable a demand push. Governments could offer vouchers for caregivers to decide how to spend it on their children. Accurate data capture of this spending will reflect what families really need.

Five, share analytics. Supply and demand push will only grow a real, competitive and innovative market when analytics of each service — price, experience and results — are available to caregivers. It will allow them to make better decisions with more ease than they do so now.

If the private sector can work on steps two, three and five (see figure) it can help the government create a market which it benefits from. The government will need to invest in steps one and four.

At the same time, the promise of high-quality outcomes in shorter timeframes can turbocharge political cycles. Families care the most about the future of their progeny. Building a platform for a good one can ensure an enormous upside. — Tarun Varma

(Picture credit: Rawpixel)

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