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A costly mistake
Priyanthi, whose children have benefited from the ECD programme in Sri Lanka, doesnt need cold facts and complex examples of the advantages of giving all children a good start in life. But some people are sceptical about a push for early childhood care programmes. There are misperceptions about what early childhood care is and who should provide it. Some argue that raising children is instinctual and cant be taught. Others say that its the job of families, not governments, to provide the basic needs of food, shelter, love and security. Others perceive a call for early childhood care as a replication of earlier programmes that provided day-care services for working mothers in industrialized nations. Still others believe that programmes for mothers, babies, toddlers and young children are just too costly.
But choosing not to provide the earliest care for all children is the costliest mistake of all. For every $1 invested in the physical and cognitive development of babies and toddlers, there is a $7 return, mainly from cost savings in the future.59 Given a healthy start and a solid foundation in the first months and years of their lives, children are less likely to suffer from illnesses, repeat grades, drop out or need remedial services. Recognizing early childhood care to be a sound investment, financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank, are providing the resources for early and comprehensive programmes for the worlds youngest citizens.
This investment return figure is derived from longitudinal studies of children from low-income families in the United States who participated in pre-school programmes. Children from ages 3 and 4 through 27 were followed and compared with a control group. Researchers found that young children who participated in the pre-school programme, which included weekly home visits by teachers, surpassed children from similar situations who were not involved in this programme. Comparisons with other pre-school experiences showed that the most disadvantaged children gained the most from early childhood interventions. Following pre-school participants over the long term showed the lasting benefits of a strong beginning. By age 27, the former pre-schoolers earned more money, had a higher percentage of home ownership, had completed more schooling and had fewer arrests.60
A study of poor Brazilian children also demonstrated the cost return of early childhood care. Poor girls who had attended pre-school were twice as likely to reach grade 5 and three times as likely to reach grade 8 as girls who did not. Poor boys who attended pre-school were three times more likely to reach grade 5 than boys who had not. And 40 per cent of poor boys who attended pre-school finished primary school, compared to 2 per cent of boys who had not been involved in early educational programmes. Based on studies of the effectiveness of Brazils early childhood care, it is estimated that boys who attend pre-school for two years will increase their earning power as adults.61
ECDs benefits are not always easily seen unless one knows where to look and what to look for. Fast, visible results often drive budgetary decisions while, in contrast, the outcome of a healthy, productive, caring child remains hidden for some years in the privacy of a family.
Nor is ECD the quick fix that garners political favour. The wide-reaching pay-off of providing adequate nutrition, clean water, good sanitation, primary health care and opportunities for sensory experiences is sometimes not seen for a generation. But, eventually and without fail, ECDs benefits become obvious.
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