Educating under-5s — perhaps Labour's biggest idea

When it comes time to memorialise Labour’s fifth spell in office, it may be remembered most lastingly for early childhood education.

Note: education, not care. Childcare is the minding of children while parents are at work. Early childhood education prepares children to learn.

Of course, educating 3-5s also involves care. And if the state pays, it helps working parents by cutting the cost of that care. But it reaches well beyond care.

And, of course, education has been a byproduct of care in many kindergartens, play centres, childcare centres and kohanga reo. I have been to some impressive centres, some run for profit and ranging from deciles 2 to 9, that predated the government’s policy. But the education (and care) varied greatly from centre to centre.

Making early childhood education systematic, as the government has started to do, takes us into in a deep zone of policy debate: on citizens’ access to and participation in our economy and society.

That debate is no longer just about the absence of legal or administrative impediments. It is about what constitutes genuine capacity to participate.

John Key seems to grasp this when from time to time he circles the “underclass”, as he did again in his “Orewa” speech in January. An underclass does not participate in the economy or society in the way you or I or Key can and its children are conditioned to expect not to participate. That puts social cohesion at risk.

There is a moral argument that society as a whole should act to maximise access for its least connected citizens. But real politics is seldom about morality. Politics pays more heed to arguments geared to economic prosperity and social cohesion.

Well, the long “tail” of children who come out of our school system poorly equipped for the modern economy and a full part in society does pose risks to prosperity and cohesion. Many of those children become a cost to society instead of an asset.

Applying “standards” and remedial teaching in and after school years, however necessary, isn’t the answer. Much better to get children able to learn when they start school.

That is, they need first to learn to learn. You and I and Key got that from our parents from day 1 of our lives. We were ready for school well before age 5.

But significant numbers arrive at school unready or unable to learn because they come from households with scant means or where neglect, not nurture, is the rule, where attention to their cognitive needs is limited, skimpy or absent.

Just providing “care” for those children before their school years doesn’t get them able to learn. Without active intervention from outside, they are condemned to life in the “tail”.

Providing professional education for 3-to-5s makes up some of the deficit. That is what the government’s programme, by aiming to be comprehensive, is most relevantly intended to address.

Last week Helen Clark added another small supporting prop.

It is no use trying to fix the tail by early childhood education if kids bound for membership of the tail don’t get into the education centres. So the “before-school” checks now to be expanded are in part intended to find those who most need the before-5 education and to intervene early. Much damage is already done by age 3 when early childhood education starts.

Logically, that work is best done by organisations embedded in communities, not the lumbering state machine. Labour, wedded to state solutions, has taken a long time to fully recognise this.

Is what the government is doing enough? Of course not. Will it reach all those who most need it? Not by a long chalk: a great deal more needs to be done to find and rescue the 0-to-3s at risk.

Is it expensive? Of course.

Why bother? Because non-learners become an economic and social cost when they grow up and that cost is likely to spiral if they in turn generate more non-learning children.

Today’s long educational “tail” is in part the legacy of the depressive effect on large numbers of households, and in turn the children in those households, of the job losses and wage cuts the 1980s economic reforms generated.

Those reforms gave us higher productivity growth and so a stronger economy and eventually low unemployment.

But for many households they blacked out the hope and expectation of better times for self and children — that is, socioeconomic mobility. Economies eventually work less well if socioeconomic mobility is low.

Critical to socioeconomic mobility is individuals’ capacity to acquire skills and thereby lift their earning power. This applies to everyone but particularly to the “tail”, those who don’t or can’t learn. The longer the tail, the less prosperous the nation, the less harmonious the society.

So early childhood education is investing in infrastructure, just like building roads.

It is arguably Labour’s most important initiative, it’s biggest idea. Who thought it up and drove it? Trevor Mallard, back in the 1990s and then as minister. It will be his memorial, too.