The smartest investment for a child

Tags: Op-ed
The smartest investment for a child
Mother Child Education Foundation (ACEV), Turkey.
BABY STEPS: A mother, trained by Turkey-based NGO ACEV’s Mother Child Education Programme, works on cognitive development material with her child at the Atasehir Public Education Centre in Turkey, Istanbul
Everyone gets it when it comes to a building, but not when it comes to education. Yet, the parallel is striking. What matters most is the foundation. If you compromise on the quality of the foundation, you compromise on the entire building. Once a wobbly foundation has been laid, it is that much harder, and costlier, to try and achieve a decent lifespan for a building by fixing the construction quality of every floor later.

What is lifespan to a building is lifelong learning potential to someone’s education. There is mounting and converging evidence from neuroscience, social science and education that the foundation of a child’s future potential is critically set in childhood, starting as early as three months before birth and until the early years of formal schooling. A nation’s education is fixed best, in the long run, by going from the bottom up. Yet, the prevailing tendency, historically, has been the opposite.

As Nobel Prize winning economist, James Heckman at the University of Chicago and many others have argued, an early investment in a child’s education and development results in the highest return on investment many years down the line, in terms of cognitive, social and motivational abilities. Disadvantaged children benefit the most from an early investment.

In a solutions-oriented book on education launched recently at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, edited by David Bloom of Harvard and titled, Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative Approaches, Pia Rebello Britto and Ayla Goksel make a strong case for early childhood development (ECD). The book and related app, an outcome of WEF’s global agenda council on education and skills (disclosure —I am a member), is downloadable from:

Globally, Britto and Goksel estimate, 200 million children, or one out of three children, “do not achieve their developmental potential in the first five years of life.” Their chapter is worth a read, not only for a good overview of ECD, but also for a taste of how Turkey’s Mother Child Education Programme (MOCEP) is scaling up ECD.

India clearly needs to be at the forefront of addressing the global ECD challenge. According to Unicef’s website, “In India, around 46 per cent children below the age of three are too small for their age, 47 per cent are underweight and at least 16 per cent are wasted.” ECD is a multifaceted concept that includes the inter-linkages between health, nutrition, education, and a safe and stimulating environment.

With half the children in India being malnourished, can it be any surprise that the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2013 found that 53 per cent rural children in class V cannot read a class II level text? Or as Unesco reported recently, 37 per cent of the world’s illiterates, officially a staggering 287 million, are in India? Besides, half the officially “literate” people are also functionally non-literate.

If nations like India want to fundamentally change the course of human capital development, if we are not to be trapped perennially in a vortex of majority malnourishment, poor achievement in primary schools and functional non-literacy, we will need to take a multi-generational perspective, stay the course, and start investing early and intelligently in ECD, spanning the period from birth to eight years of age.

Achieving quality ECD on India’s scale is not going to be easy. Yet, there are some concretely definable and measurable targets for policy action. Britto and Goksel suggest three windows of opportunity: the first 1,000 days, ages of three to five and ages of six to eight.

In the early part of the first window, WHO guidelines recommend initiating breastfeeding within one hour of birth and exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months, due to its proven and sustained benefits for overall health, cognitive and emotional development.

In India, only 25 per cent initiate breastfeeding within the first hour, worse than in most developing countries (80 per cent in Sri Lanka). When asked if their less than six-month-old child was exclusively breastfed in the last 24 hours, only 46 per cent mothers reported doing so (83 per cent in Afghanistan).

Although there are no reliable statistics for India on cognitive stimulation in the zero to five year phase of development, some simple yet insightful measures are whether parents have read to their children, told them stories, or sung to them in the past three days. The averages for 50 low and middle-income countries on these measures, Britto and Goksel report, are respectively, 25 per cent, 33 per cent and 50 per cent.

India does not collect data on cognitive stimulation measures because most policymakers and parents are not informed of its critical importance for a child’s future learning potential. Do mothers and fathers know that simply talking, singing, interacting, telling stories, and if possible, reading daily to a child, especially in the zero to five year phase, is the best investment they could ever make in her or his education?

Most people might think that real education actually begins in class I when the ABCs are introduced. Science tells us that by then, the foundation for future learning potential has substantially been set.

(The writer is a social entrepreneur and is on the faculty of IIM-Ahmedabad)


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