The economy of education

Economic power in an increasingly globalised environment is pertinent to any country’s survival.  Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa realised this and knew that they could not make a noticeable dent in the existing economic playing field without working together.  Enter BRICS – a partnership that will see these countries working together to improve their economic status in the world.

In order to feed BRICS’s desire for global economic power there is an unquestionable need for improved education standards in each of the countries. While they forge ahead to pump money and resources into education facilities that will create the ideal workforce, Cotlands would like to remind these five nations that the building blocks to creating a successful workforce and economy start with an understanding and appreciation for early childhood education and allocating resources for this sector.

While we are impressed with the increased funding and resources into various levels of formal education, it is not enough to create a sizable workforce that can grow BRICS’ economic influence on the world stage.  According to the Learning Curve report released earlier this year there is a statistical correlation between the average time spent in school by a country’s students and the labour productivity of its workers over the last two decades.

There is no doubt that the South African government understands this association as it allocates more money to education than any of the other BRICS country. In 2008/2009 Treasury is estimated to have spent R127.3 billion on education across the board.  In 2013 South Africa spent 21% of the national budget on education. However, this injection of funds is still not translating into economic growth as the country’s GDP grew by a meagre 1.9% last year. We need to ask ourselves why. According to the same Learning Curve report, making sure people are taught the right skills early in  childhood is far more effective than trying to improve skills in adulthood for people who were let down by their school system.

In the research that I’ve read –  before steering Cotlands into the early learning space – there is significant evidence to show that children who have received quality early learning opportunities in their formative years perform better at school and are able to cope better at tertiary level. While tertiary studies l isn’t for everyone, children who have a solid learning foundation are also better able to adapt, think outside the box and become entrepreneurs. This, I would imagine, are the qualities BRICS would want and need to sustain its economic growth.

Unfortunately, in South Africa’s attempt to gain economic ground and our government’s desperate need to increase the pass rate, we have rushed through the formula for lifelong learning – which is needed for an adaptable workforce.   

Over the last two decades our core-skills teaching in our education system has been diluted to compensate for the lack of a solid early learning foundation. We see this in the introduction of subjects like Mathematical Literacy. While we are slowly catching up, sadly the generations that are in the current schooling system and those who have passed through will never be able to regain the ground they have lost.

South Africa’s place in the BRICS dream falls on the shoulders of three government departments –   Social Development, Basic Education and Health. None of these departments can afford to fall short. They are all interdependent and should not work in silos as this will stunt the process. In our experience the bureaucracy hindering these departments from working together more cohesively is costing us precious time. But it’s not just government that is struggling to make the connection. Parents and caregivers are not aware of the importance of cognitive stimulation and are not actively seeking out early learning opportunities for their children. Corporate Social Investment programmes that fund education are also lagging behind as many still do not include early learning in the first fours of life as part of their focus area.

The success of BRICS has consequences for all of us and its success will depend on all sectors of society playing its part. While the primary goal for these governments is increased economic sway on the global stage, we should not discard the opportunity to address social inequalities. It is the after all responsibility of civil society to push for social transformation.

With a solid early learning foundation – which includes good nutrition, safe places to play, positive adult interaction and a stable home environment – this generation of children could contribute to our economy well beyond our imagination.

Before we lose any more ground we need to focus a lot more attention on early childhood development. In this age group – birth to six – lie the beginnings of economic progress that South Africa and the other BRICS nations want to see.

For me, personally, I would like to see a more socially innovative generation. I believe that through our early learning playgroups we are working towards this. Through engaging play that develops problem-solving skills, emotional skills and social skills, children in our early learning playgroups are laying the foundation for social and economic ingenuity.