There’s been a lot of focus on early childhood development as the site of inequality in the past few years. Persistent gaps in educational achievement for disadvantaged children are frequently attributed to things like a lack of quality early childhood education or the fact that privileged children are read to by their parents.
There is significant truth to be found here. Research shows that children’s potential can be affected by the environment they grow up in prior to starting school. Risk factors contribute to disadvantage, and include things like poverty, low parental education, poor quality home learning environment, poor parenting, presence of conflict, family instability and abuse and maltreatment.
To remedy this, governments and independent researchers have, for decades now, been running what are known as ‘early childhood interventions’, which aim to reduce the developmental impact of these kinds of risk factors.
More than just preschool or childcare, these interventions contain multiple and varied modules, such as playgroups, childcare, counselling, parental seminars and structured play sessions. The goal is to improve children’s environments by working with parents and hopefully alter the child’s life trajectory by making them better-prepared for school and life beyond.
It is all very appealing, which is why they have become all but common wisdom in overseas countries like the US and UK, and have made a decent showing here in Australia. But unlike our foreign cousins, Australia falls down in the crucial area of good-quality evidence.
Whereas the US and UK have things like clearinghouses and foundations dedicated solely to pursuing research that can inform future programs and policy, Australian governments are largely ad-hoc with the evaluation of programs they actually run.
Out of 11 recent programs with evaluations that have been made public, only three had a relatively high-quality design, and many didn’t measure the real impact on children in the short-term, let alone the longer term — which is where the promise of this policy tool actually lies. Programs have been continued for several years or expanded in spite of weak evidence.
Governments must act to improve the evidence base for this policy. Taxpayers and the children involved deserve it.