• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 20th September, 2011

“Investing in children” gets a reality check

Social policy in Europe has undergone a sea change in the past decade. Starting in the late 1990s, many states started to respond to the challenges of the competitive, global knowledge-based economy by adopting a strategy of “social investment.” Social investment puts children at the center of economic policy. Invest in the skills of the future labor force, the theory says, and all of society will profit. Surely children’s advocates should rejoice in this “social-investive” turn.Not entirely, say two German philosophers, writing in a recent issue of Childhood. The case of Germany’s social investment strategy shows that when the pure idea of investing in human capital runs into political and psychological reality, children can become the losers.“Social investment” and investing in childrenThe driving idea behind social investment is this: if governments invest in the human capital of their citizens – especially in children, who have the most years to generate returns – then not only individuals, but society as a whole, will reap the benefits. As the powerful and appealing idea of social investment caught on in the late 1990s and 2000s, the orientation of European social policy changed. In many states, policy makers set aside the “old” welfare state goal of achieving social equality by redistributing resources. The new goal: to create a productive, competitive future labor force that will drive the nation’s prosperity for decades to come. Social investment puts children at the heart of government policy. It assumes that early investment is the best investment: “The ability to build up human capital is determined especially during the first years of life.” It also recognizes that not all families have equal capacity to teach and nurture their young children. Poverty and economic inequality impairs the ability of many families to invest in their own children’s human capital. When this perspective is adopted by policy makers, the role of childhood in political strategy suddenly changes. No longer is it a fringe issue. Early childcare policy – and particularly early childhood education – suddenly becomes a matter of crucial economic importance. The case of Germany’s early childcare policyGerman policy has engaged with the new social investment approach since 2002. Under the umbrella of “sustainable family policy,” Germany’s social-investive strategy aims to increase the fertility rate, increase the participation of mothers in the labor force, improve pupils’ academic achievement, and reduce child and family poverty.The rationale is economic. As the German federal government proclaimed in 2005: “Families ensure the social growth as well as economic prosperity of our society. Germany cannot afford to waste important potentials for further growth and innovation.”This new social-investive strategy to build human capital led to new targets for early childcare policy. A widely available, high-quality early childcare system was to be created – fast. From 2006 to 2013, the provision rate for children under the age of three was set to rise from 13.5% to 35%. In 2013, all children between 1 and 3 years of age will have the right to a place in an early childcare facility. Alongside the increase in quantity, the quality of care is being targeted for improvement, too. However, as Maksim Hübenthal and Anna Maria Ifland of Germany’s Martin Luther University suggest, these recent developments quickly run into political, practical, and psychological trouble. The result, they say, is that “child-centered” social investment may actually create new risks for children’s well-being. The authors identify four key problems. First is the difficulty of improving the quality and quantity of German early childcare so quickly. Early childcare was “neglected for decades,” the authors say: childcare staff tend to have low educational levels, low wages, high workloads, and little societal recognition. It may not be possible to recruit and train enough qualified staff to meet the 35% provision rate by 2013.Second, the authors question whether even the government’s target of 35% will be enough to cover the demand for places. They quote results from a survey indicating that many more parents may claim their right to childcare after 2013 than the government is expecting. As a result, after 2013, two out of three children under the age of three may not be able to attend early childcare institutions even though they have the legal right to do so, because of the shortage of qualified staff.Third, two groups of vulnerable children may end up being excluded from early childcare facilities: children of immigrants and children of unemployed parents. Children of immigrants are typically underrepresented in early care facilities, primarily because the parents cannot afford the costs. The children of unemployed parents are also at risk of exclusion: federal regulation allows German states to exclude them from full-day early childcare places, and to limit their access to part-time places. In other words, children who are already disadvantaged by their family background may miss out on the opportunities provided by these facilities. Although the goal of an expanded early childcare system is to reduce social inequality, excluding vulnerable children may actually exacerbate inequalities.Finally – and most paradoxically – even the children included in the new childcare system face risks, the authors claim. Treating early childcare as a pure investment in human capital is “linked to the risk that child-specific needs within the process of early learning will be more and more neglected in favor of an economic rationalization of early childhood education.” The risk is that efficiency-focused economic concerns will consider child-specific needs only if they contribute to the formation of human capital. However, these “the faster the better” and “the more the better” approaches may neglect children’s developmental needs. Very young children require stable, trusting relationships with adults and other children, and they need free and unconditional time for playing and dreaming. A focus on competition and performance may undermine relationship-building and free play, and lead instead to stress, overstrain, and physical and psychological problems such as hyperactivity and sleep disorders. And if children’s right to be “here and now” to benefit from those facilities and enhance their development is limited, then their chance of developing further skills will also be limited. From the perspective of child-specific needs and child rights, the instrumental role of children in early childcare policy needs to be considered carefully in order to support better child outcomes. Hübenthal and Ifland do not discount the need for – or the value of – more and better early childcare. But they warn that policy must prioritize the needs and rights of children. A more balanced approach, then, is one that treats children not only as “future assets” but also as “active members of society in the ‘here and now.’”ReferenceHübenthal, M., & Ifland, A. M. (2011). Risks for children? Recent developments in early childcare policy in Germany. Childhood 18 (1), 114-127.

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