As parents across Australia juggle the demands of school holidays, after significant periods of home learning, and doing whatever it takes to hold onto a job in this challenging economic climate, you wouldn’t be blamed for also pondering what the long term impacts of all of this might be on your children.
Whether it’s been school absences, school closures or the baptism of fire into home learning you attempted to do in between Zoom meetings, every Australian family has been under immense pressure since the pandemic began, and you have every right to be concerned about what it all means for your child’s long term future.
An article published this week in the Australian Journal of Labour Economics by Gigi Foster, Professor and Director of Education at the University of New South Wales, examined the impact that school absences and closures may have on the lifetime earnings of schoolchildren in Australia, in strictly economic terms.
You may have heard of Gigi Foster, as she has been quite outspoken during the pandemic about getting the country’s economy moving, and came under fire after her appearance on Q&A for ‘advocating for people to die’. Love her or loathe her, Foster’s analysis is intriguing and heavily focused on Australian statistics gathered during the pandemic.
What Foster finds is that the period of closures, home learning, and extended school holidays, may result in anywhere between $50 to $100 million in lost future earnings for this cohort of children. That is a whopping amount of future earnings that our children may miss out on, simply because of school disruptions during the pandemic, which doesn’t even take into account the second Melbourne lockdown.
In speaking with Foster, she told me that one factor that isn’t accounted for in the calculations is the significant disadvantage that some children may have faced during the pandemic, that could in fact result in higher losses than those estimated.
Foster noted “I have an 18 year old doing the HSC, she had no problems, but many of her peers were really suffering in terms of their mental health”, which raises concerns about the broad spectrum of experiences that children faced during the pandemic that will no doubt deliver unpredictable outcomes well into the future.
Although the article paints a bleak picture, Foster asserts that she conducts a purely economic analysis, and doesn’t take into account positive factors such as the quality of learning for certain children, or intervening factors later in life that could improve outcomes.
It therefore begs the question of what we, as a community, can do to counteract this cliff. It further raises the issue of whether our Government will listen to the calls for policy change in the areas of education and family support, to remedy the inevitable fiscal and social impacts that the pandemic will have. I have posed a few solutions that could enhance long term outcomes for children living through the pandemic.
Creating positive experiences for children
It is well known that traumatic experiences in childhood can impact brain development, otherwise known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). But these can, of course, be countered by positive experiences and early investment in these children.
Resident Child Psychologist in my team, Louella Covich, inspired our Educators at a recent training session by saying “you are shaping the child you are working with”. What she was referring to was the ability for scenarios to be established around children that help to overcome some of the impacts of trauma and disruptions to learning.
A recent study by Johns Hopkins University identified Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) that were linked to better mental health outcomes for adults who had experienced childhood trauma. These included children talking to their family about their feelings, having family support in difficult times, participating in community traditions, and having at least two non-parent adults who genuinely care for them.
The study demonstrated that if a sufficient number of PCEs were present, it significantly outweighed the impacts of adverse experiences on a child’s future mental health.
Evolution in parent-school relationships
Various longitudinal studies have found that parental engagement with schooling reaps rewards for children’s learning and development outcomes. Sure, we all want to be engaged with our child’s schooling, but when children have homework tasks from the moment they start kindergarten, what hope do working parents have of being able to keep up with these demands.
We need an evolution in the way that family-school partnerships work. The homework demands, particularly for primary school aged children, have a whiff of the 1950s to them, where a parent, most likely the mother, is doing school pick up and spending those precious few hours after school supporting homework before putting a hot meal on the table for the family.
I know I’m preaching to the converted here, but when are we going to realise that most families have two working parents, who usually don’t finish work until 6pm, and have zero hours for homework during the time of the day when the child is actually alert enough to gain anything from said homework.
This isn’t even taking into account the challenges parents of children with disabilities face, who felt left behind when schools closed and transitioned to home learning early in the pandemic. They often have little to no resources available to adapt their home environment to meet their children’s needs, and are already juggling therapy appointments, NDIS reviews, and learning support with holding down a job.
Schools and parents need to work together to devise strategies that not only take into account the demands of modern parenting, but also allows for innovation, thinking outside the square, and the embracing of technologies that allow parents who can’t make it to school morning teas, to participate in school life.
Investing in early childhood education
Now I can’t miss the opportunity to point to the elephant in the room, namely that investment in early childhood education will deliver economic benefits for the entire country that far outweigh the loss estimated by Foster. You have no doubt seen the reports, whether it’s by the Grattan Institute, The Front Project, Thrive by Five, or KPMG, on the benefits to the economy of the investment in early childhood education and increased access to child care subsidies. Everyone is singing from the same song sheet.
When asked about the implementation of some of these recommendations, I could hear the passion in Foster’s voice in support of the strategy, “Australia is very well placed to enact a program of universal childcare, it is an obvious way to go and a ‘no brainer,” she told me.
“It would lift the productivity of the economy, with different childcare options for different families, that includes monitoring and auditing to make sure it is of high quality.”
Universal access to early childhood education should also include strategies to achieve better wages and retention of staff in the early childhood sector. The average number of years of experience for early childhood professionals is just 6.6 years, meaning that if they have spent two years completing their studies and working within the sector during that time, they then go on to leave the sector around four years later. The departure of a child’s Educator disrupts their attachment and, in turn their learning, which makes greater retention in the sector crucial to improving children’s outcomes.
As Foster says, “enriched learning outcomes” would be achieved for children, parental engagement in the workforce would be increased, and a “more productive labour market” would boost the economy and deliver “great levels of return” for enhanced socio-economic circumstances for children and their families.
With the budget announcement looming, I have no doubt that everyone in my sector is waiting with bated breath for a sign that the Commonwealth Government has heard the calls that increased access to quality early childhood education will offer welcome relief to the economy, whilst also paving the way for a future generation of Australians that are educated, resilient, and feel supported by their Government.
Foster’s analysis acts as a timely reminder of the vital role that policy, research and innovation will play in our children’s lifetime to improve not only their individual outcomes, but the outcomes of our society as a whole.
In order to recover from the pandemic and build a robust economy, we need a mentally healthy community, that is reinforced by sound Government policy in the areas of education, gender equality, and social supports, that match the realities of modern life.