Plan targeting beneficiary parents should be spread to help every child
A former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Jim Traue, offered a powerful insight to educational disadvantage in a contributed article we published on Tuesday.
"Take the child from a stable, middle-class home," he wrote, "intensively engaged in conversation with adults since birth and read to regularly by parents since the age of two. That child knows that writing goes from left to right and top to bottom, that black marks on paper make letters, that letters make words and that words make stories ...
"Take at the extreme another who has had little conversation at home, never been read to, never seen a book. That child knows nothing of these things ...
"The first child arrives at school with a rich intellectual capital on which teachers can build readily. Within two years that child will have begun to read fluently and be poised to read to learn. The second child, lacking this platform, has been plunged into an alien world of incomprehensible black marks on paper ... There is more than an 80 per cent chance that child will fall further behind and end up in the netherworld of the semi-literate."
Mr Traue was not making a case for compulsory pre-school education but, by chance, on the day his article appeared the Government took just such a step, albeit only for the children of beneficiaries. Social Development Minister Paula Bennett announced that parents on benefits will have to put their children into early education for 15 hours a week from age three.
This, with school attendance, enrolment in a general practice and child health checks, will be a condition of benefits paid from July next year and parents who fail to meet their obligations will face graduated penalties culminating in a loss of half the benefit.
The punitive element of the policy has dominated public discussion and distracted attention from its true significance. It may be just the first step in starting compulsory education in the pre-school years. Benefits are paid to 125,000 parents, single or coupled, with 220,000 children.
Many of those parents probably already read to their children at home, giving them good attention in their pre-school years, and do their utmost to see they are well equipped for school. But too many others are not mindful, or not capable, of attending to an infant's mental development. Children's books probably rate very low on most beneficiaries' household budgets.
Ideally, there would be a way to discover educational deprivation with more precision than the mere receipt of a benefit, but social research always associates one with the other. It is unlikely that any parent doing a good job for a child will object to the new obligation, so long as it is affordable for them. The minister says they will get particular support if they need it.
Those who resist the obligation and run the risk of the penalties are probably those whose children are most deprived. The ultimate sanction, halving the household's income, will probably never be seen. It would make the child suffer for the parent's failing - but then the child is probably suffering anyway. A benefit cut would be preceded by three reminders to comply. Defiance to that degree would signal something seriously amiss.
Early education, which the previous Government made free for 20 hours a week, has not been a priority for this Government. But having made it compulsory for beneficiaries National will find it hard to argue against wider compulsion. If it is that important for some, it is probably important for all.