• Opinion
  • October 23, 2018
  • 5 minutes
  • 1

Early education is a sound investment — but kids can’t thrive on school alone

Opinion: We need to shift our narrow focus on education and take a holistic view

early education

This opinion piece was written by Margaret Sims, Professor or Early Childhood Education at the University of New England. It also appears in our early childhood newsfeed.


Around the western world, neoliberalism positions education as a tool used to shape children, as future citizens, into the workforce required by corporations and big business.  Educational institutions are seen as responsible for increasing productivity and competitiveness through maximising human capital and inculcating the necessary attributes and skills.

There is growing criticism of the way in which education has been high-jacked by those whose purpose is not to improve the wellbeing of humans, or the world, but to enforce “political and intellectual conformity or, as Chomsky has said, “to make the population ignorant and irrational enough to safeguard short-term profit for the rich”.

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As an adjunct of education, early childhood education is not immune to these criticisms. There are increasing concerns expressed that the focus on education for young children places the sector in the position of a handmaiden intent on copying the concerns so widely expressed for education in general. For example, early childhood education is increasingly seen as the vehicle which can deliver “national economic prosperity”.

Early intervention research produced the evidence that has driven this perspective. The Perry HighScope program, for example, demonstrated that high quality early childhood education provided a return on investment of up to 1:17. This economic argument has driven a worldwide political focus on how to use early childhood education to improve the well-being of nations.

However, what is becoming increasingly clear is that an emphasis on education alone is not the answer to the question of how to ensure our children are thriving.

The World Health Organisation, United Nations Children’s Fund and World Bank Group (2018) recently released a Nurturing Care Framework that identified five key elements (of which early education is but one) that must be addressed if, as a world, we are ever going to achieve the transformation envisaged by these agencies as necessary to ensure every child can not only survive, but thrive. The five elements are: adequate nutrition, responsive caregiving, good health, security and safety and opportunities for early learning.

This means that as nations continue to develop early childhood policies, we need to shift our focus from education alone, and take a holistic view.

As nations continue to develop early childhood policies, we need to shift our focus from education alone and take a holistic view

We need to ensure that all families are able to provide good nutrition for their children — and supported if they cannot achieve this on their own.

We need to address the inequities in our world that result in far too many children living in situations where they experience daily trauma.

We need to develop policies and programs that support parents to offer nurturing care — and that means we have to address the inequities that drain parental physical and emotional resources so these are not available to their children.

We need to examine our health systems and ensure that all children have access to good health services, clean water for drinking and washing and appropriate hygiene facilities.

Investing in developing national curricula for early childhood is one small step, despite being the one step that many nations take based on the assumption that early learning experiences alone will make a difference.

There is no doubt that they will, but they will not make the difference that a holistic approach, addressing all elements of the nurturing care framework can make. To change the world we need to work together and work holistically. — Margaret Sims

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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