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Archive for April, 2012

Early Childhood: The Issue missing from the Education Debate (in Australia)

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

Substantial heat is generated in Australia about child care and parental leave. Whilst there are economic issues involved in respect of the parents, the much more important aspects concern the young child and the future economic and social impact, let alone the impact on the individual. For the most part those issues are being ignored in the debate being held over the last few years in Australia. The situation in the US and in Britain in respect of early childhood and parental leave contrasts with that in much of continental Europe including Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands and in some Asian countries including Singapore where childcare is funded by governments or at least heavily subsidised where parents are unable to afford it.

Australia is lagging in this matter as in many others. The consequences are future significant economic impacts in unemployment and social dislocation. Funding untrained persons to mind the young children of parents enjoying more than reasonably satisfactory economic and social conditions, as is advocated by some politicians, completely ignores all the evidence and is a waste of taxpayers money! Failure to invest in early childhood leads to increased costs later on either in educational expenses or in countering antisocial  behaviour, it leads in many families to poorer educational outcomes and a diminished life not least because of the economic conditions of the parents relating to excessively demanding working conditions often for both parents or no employment at all. The experiences of young girls growing up in those circumstances is visited on the young children they have in adult life. The experiences of young boys influences their passage into adolescence and adulthood.

Early childhood intervention is not child minding but an investment in the future more important than almost any other intervention in education. It must involve qualified early childhood educators. Think of parental leave and the costs of good support in early life, the experiences of urban settings of high rise apartments and the lives of “minority” families which are portrayed time and again in police dramas brought right into our living rooms on our TV screens. Numerous studies demonstrate just how significant the physical, social and economic environments portrayed in these dramas are in producing the tragedies which perpetuate poverty and violence.

Around 50 per cent of the educational achievement of children at school is contributed by what the child brings to school, as Professor John Hattie’s meta-analyses have shown and a substantial part of their subsequent achievement involves the relationships established in the early years of the child’s life.

Study after study in many countries shows extraordinary gains for investment in early child care as well as the critical importance to the child in later life of the relationships developed in the first few years. Yet firm meaningful policies are not put in place in countries such as the US. This would be considered astonishing until one realises that most of those involved in approving the necessary legislation are not directly affected by such policies. They more often find it useful politically to exhort parents to exercise their parental responsibility!

The investment we make in very young children is the most important investment we make!

Continue to the essays Early Childhood: A World of Relationships, Early Childhood: The Nature of Early Experiences and Early Childhood: Critical Relationships with the Mother

Continue to Education: Life’s Choices – Introductory Background


Economics and Educational Opportunity

Monday, April 2nd, 2012


There seem to be two worlds in which education reform, along with everything else, proceeds. In one a purely statistical and theoretical view of economics prevails. In the other sociology, a view informed by studies of the social interaction of people. To move from the former view to the latter is to enter through a kind of ‘green door’ from a society dominated by individual utility maximisation to one more concerned with social value and which recognises the sometimes irrational behaviour of people. One is based entirely in theory and has a utility related to its alleged predictability derived from sophisticated mathematics, a predictability which in most cases is at best difficult to test. The other is supported by extensive research on what people value and what they do not and how they actually behave in relation to their stated values.

These extracts from the essay on economics critique neoclassical economics and its application to education policy. Neoclassical economics and neoliberalism which is derived from it has gained substantial influence over the last 50 years. In that time economic growth in many countries has been accompanied by a number of important features. These include the application of notions about competition, choice and accountability to policies on schools and universities as well as early childhood. The last several decades have also seen increasing disparities in wealth within populations accompanied by “offshoring’ of many jobs in order to decrease costs. In several countries costs of education, of schools and of universities, have increased also. In the view of a number of economists this has led to a decline in the standards of education.

The focus on economics as if it is the basis of  human society has been criticised by a number of scholars and writers and the failure of neoclassical economic theory and practice seen in severe economic turbulence has led leaders of a number of nations to question its appropriateness. In other cases the deregulation advocated by the proponents of neoclassical economics have led to profound fluctuations in national and international economies with “speculative bubbles” being enhanced by use of complicated mathematical algorithms and complex financial instruments as well as artificially low interest rates and excessive lending and borrowing at individual, corporate, government and national levels.

These notes on economics accompany essays on community and inequality. It needs to be kept in mind that the socio-economic and educational levels of parents are the most accurate predictors of  children’s educational achievement. This is not because of some link with intelligence but with the profound differences in opportunities which are provided to those at higher economic and social levels.  The differences which these opportunities make are evident in the first year to 18 months.

Continue to Education – Introductory Background

Continue to A Word on EconomicsNeoclassical Economics : a Failure of Theory or a Theoretical Failure? and An Alternative View: Behavioural Economics


Education: Life’s Choices

Sunday, April 1st, 2012


This is an entirely new section of the website intended to contain extracts from a forthcoming publication of essays on education in almost all of its manifestations and relationships. The following summarises some of the main propositions and conclusions of the essays and outlines the content and scope of the essays.

The Book and the Essays

The set of essays in the upcoming publication will deal with education from early childhood to lifelong learning beyond and outside of school. The proposition is that achieving educational gains, which are important both individually and at the community and national level, depends on special attention to early childhood, to the nature of the school experience, the individual potential of students recognising that all are capable of success but that special attention is needed to those having difficulty achieving the required standard.

The principal thesis of the collection of essays is that many different things are connected. Attention to early childhood is essential: successful emergence from those early years is influenced by the social and economic circumstances of the family and also by the experiences of the mother when she was young. The health of the child is also influenced by the social and economic circumstances of the family and that in turn influences brain and cognitive development. The economic circumstances of the family are determined very much by the employment situation of the parents. High levels of unemployment likely lead to domestic problems which lead to poor health which reduces the likelihood of successful cognitive development. Economic and social conditions continue to influence the child’s educational development through school and  beyond.

Of the greatest importance is the fact that early childhood intervention has greatest impact on low socio-economic families: support for preschool and for parental leave is an employment issue – the usual focus of the debate – but it is much more importantly an educational  issue. The evidence is that especially in the case of low socio-economic families, simply having very young children minded by a friend or relative will not advantage the child’s cognitive development. A full fifty percent of the child’s achievement at school is determined by what the child brings to the school experience. If that has been poor it is far less likely that any subsequent intervention will overcome the deficit. Unless substantial additional resources are allocated!

At school and beyond successful learning comes from successful teaching which is enhanced by leadership at the principal level and other senior levels, encouragement of cooperation amongst teachers, and students, and setting of high standards of instruction and student achievement. It also requires superior recruitment, appropriate remuneration and significant trust.

The principal gain of education must be seen as advancing human development at the individual level, with gains which flow to the community broadly and secondarily to the economy. Primary emphasis on matters such as economic indicators and economic motivations and purposes are a break on achievement in the longer term.

It is intended that a very broad range of issues which affect educational outcomes be traversed, ranging from economics and community issues through early childhood to the nature of superior teaching and work issues concerning teachers such as pay and performance and school leadership, student issues including curriculum, standardised testing and the importance of creativity and its encouragement, to school issues including the debate about public as opposed to private and independent schools. Education outside and beyond school are also dealt with.

The recent experience of education reform in Australia, the UK and the USA and internationally generally as revealed by numerous international studies, especially the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will be dealt with.

Whilst the 12 or so essays focus principally on Australia the context is international. The essays draw extensively on research papers and documents, media articles and books.

Conclusions are drawn as to what features are revealed by the experiences of various countries and the huge number of studies of education and the impact on educational outcomes of social and economic issues and government policies.

In the best education systems achievement is considered to be advanced by assuming that all students are capable of achieving success, that recruitment of teachers needs special attention, that teachers should be trusted to deliver professionally and that adequate time for training and development is essential. And so on. This view does not pay attention to beliefs in neoliberalism but emphasises cooperation and especially attention to those having difficulty in achieving their potential. Early childhood development is recognised as essential to later educational achievement.

As to the research in education it is often asserted that there are many significant uncertainties even on such fundamental issues as to what constitutes effective teaching! Forgotten is the fact that there is no area of human endeavour in which knowledge is complete, let alone perfect. However, to assert that knowledge and understanding of the most fundamental aspects of education are lacking is nonsense! Knowledge and understandings available now are more than sufficient to make the most critical decisions to support superior learning outcomes.

For instance, despite high quality research by many different people and groups that show that merit pay does not lead to improved performance of teachers and therefore higher achievement of students (or even to higher performance of other professionals and very probably all persons in organisations, nonprofit and commercial alike), there are those who continue to refer to economic studies (which anyway are at the very best inconclusive) and for the most part discount other research which does not support the proposition they favour. That in such a contentious area any introduction of merit pay would be not only opposed but understandably disputed as to its merits leading to unproductive conflict seems to be ignored.

There are similar situations with issues such as standardised testing, the curriculum, school leadership, early childhood intervention, university teaching and organisation and so on. In the US research by educators funded by the Federal Government was required to conform to the same level of rigour as research in the pharmaceutical industry which, to anyone familiar with the area, is a nonsense!

The essays in this section are extracts. I hope they give the flavour of what is intended.

Continue to the Introduction