The Economic Value Of Ireland’s Ecce Scheme

According to an article in The Sunday Independent last January, the department of Public Expenditure and Reform has commissioned a report by the department’s Central Expenditure and Evaluation Unit (CEEU) that recommends abolishing the Early Childhood Care/Education scheme, ostensibly to save €76 million.

However, six years earlier, it was vividly demonstrated that any cut to the ECCE scheme in Ireland would be an exercise in false economy. Was nobody listening? The ECCE scheme 2012 is at least as valuable to Ireland’s economic future now as such schemes have been in the past – never mind the equally valuable benefits to families and to improved socialisation, cognitive and (especially) non-cognitive development of young people. Considering the economic impact alone, the arguments in favour of a free preschool year – a universal ECCE scheme in Ireland – remain indisputable.

A technical research paper for the National Economic and Social Forum on The Economics of Early Childhood Care and Education clearly highlighted the economic benefits of ECCE schemes.

The paper presented the compelling arguments in favour of an ECCE scheme, emphasising that ‘education is not a repeatable process.’ The point here is that an opportunity for invaluable early education that is missed cannot be compensated for in later life. ‘This inability to catch up,’ the paper asserts, ‘puts an enormous penalty on getting it wrong in the first place.’

Remedial approaches that attempt to ‘catch up,’ in the absence of a free preschool year or other free childcare scheme, were shown to be neither efficient nor cost effective, though they may sometimes be ‘politically desirable.’

The paper went on to state that ‘the strongest evidence for impact on the child and on society comes from high-quality preschool education.’ Citing evidence from long-established programmes in the United States (such as ‘Head Start’ and the ‘Perry program’ – initiated back in 1962), the paper pointed out that cost-benefit analyses of such programmes ‘translate into substantial economic returns for every dollar invested – something close to a return of eight dollars per dollar spent.’

Whereas some people have argued over the years that such schemes should be targeted (rather than universal) this report demonstrates that the opposite is true. Although it acknowledges that lower income, less advantaged children and families benefit somewhat more from such schemes than higher income families, targeted provision of free childcare schemes ‘could produce perverse results.’ The paper found that providing the scheme only for selected children in specific socio-economic conditions could have the counterintuitive effect of increasing inequality in education.

The paper said, ‘This strongly motivates the provision of an ECCE service on both a universal and where possible compulsory basis.’ The free preschool year is, in effect, a means of increasing the extent of compulsory education not at the end (by raising the minimum age of school-leaving) but at the beginning where, as is compellingly evident, it belongs.

A free childcare scheme such as Ireland’s ECCE scheme 2012 is not a handout. It’s good for children, it’s good for families, it’s good for education and it’s good for the Irish economy.