Compulsory education at age four prevents learning disabilities

Early childhood intervention through preschool education and the implementation of compulsory education at age four is the key to preventing unnecessary learning disabilities, argued Bas ter Weel during his inaugural lecture on 7 September in acceptance of his appointment as Professor of Social Economics and Labour Market Policy at Maastricht University.

Inaugural lecture by Professor Bas ter Weel

The less time and money invested in young children, the more likely they are to develop learning disabilities that are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

“Investments are most profitable when made during early childhood,” says Ter Weel. “Skills acquired during early childhood are applied at a later stage. These can be put to immediate use or can encourage the acquisition of other skills later in life. More importantly, early childhood investments lead to higher productivity of later investments and are both effective and cost efficient. On the other hand, overcoming learning disabilities at a later stage can be expensive or even impossible.”

Compulsory education at age four

Not every child is given the same investment opportunities. Children from relatively poor families are more likely to develop learning disabilities upon entering primary school and have a higher chance of leaving school without a diploma. The introduction of compulsory education from the age of four is a good solution for limiting the development of learning disabilities in children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. “At the moment,” says Ter Weel “the majority of children aged four and up are in school. But compulsory education officially starts at age five, and children from poorer families tend to start school later.”

Preschool education

That is not good enough. The costs of educating a young child are harder to bear for poorer families, which leads some children to develop learning disabilities as young as four years old. Ter Weel suggests that the educational costs can be reduced by splitting them between the family and the state through preschool education. It appears that investing in very young children from poorer families and children in disadvantaged areas has a positive effect on academic results, dropout rates, delinquency and drug use. Ultimately, these children are able to obtain a better social standing, which greatly exceeds the costs of implementing the programme.

“It’s up to the parents to raise their children, but the government can help by encouraging early childhood development when parents fall short. Good academic performance requires willpower and determination. These don’t happen on their own, but require strength and commitment from the parents.”

Ter Weel’s professorship is part of the General Economics Department at the Maastricht School of Business and Economics.

Bas ter Weel is Head of the Department of Labour Market and Welfare at the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) in The Hague, the Netherlands. Since 2002 he is also working as a senior researcher at UNU-MERIT, Maastricht University. His research focuses on empirical and theoretical issues in the areas of labour economics and the economics of innovation and new technology. He is also working on the role of interpersonal relationships between workers to explain labour-market outcomes.

Source: Maastricht University, September 2012

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