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MLAs urged to invest in young

By Lisa Smyth

The Northern Ireland Assembly will today be urged to invest in very young children to lower divorce and teenage pregnancy rates, reduce crime and create a more competitive workforce.

Nobel laureate economist Professor James Heckman will address members of the Executive outlining the findings of his extensive 30-year study into early childhood programmes.

The Chicago-based economist is due to speak to representatives from offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers, the Department of Finance and Personnel and a range of MLAs at a symposium organised by Early Years, the organisation formerly known as NIPPA.

The professor, whose findings have changed government policy in the US and who is highly regarded as a visionary across the world, has reached a series of conclusions based on studies which have spanned more than 30 years.

Among his findings, Professor Heckman believes that if a child is not motivated and stimulated to learn and engage early on in life, the more likely it is that when the child becomes an adult, it will fail in social and economic life.

He also believes that the longer we wait to intervene, the more costly it is to remediate to restore the child to its full potential. If society intervenes early enough, it can affect cognitive, and socio-emotional abilities and the health of disadvantaged children.

And he is also expected to say that early interventions promote schooling, reduce crime, promote workforce productivity and reduce teenage pregnancy. These interventions are estimated to save up to 17 times the amount invested in the longer term.

Given the tight spending conditions outlined in the budget by Minister for Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson, it would seem that Professor Heckman's findings will make for interesting reading.

In a recent policy paper launched by his 'Ounce of learning' institute, Professor Heckman says that investment in early years makes good financial sense. It illustrates how investment returns of up to 17 times the amount spent are possible.

He said: "The real question is how to use the available funds wisely. The best evidence supports the policy prescription - invest in the very young and improve basic learning and socialisation skills."

Speaking ahead of the symposium, Early Years director Siobhan Fitzpatrick said that Prof Heckman's findings, if taken seriously, have the potential to transform society in Northern Ireland.

"His findings from all the major early childhood programmes of the last three decades show beyond any doubt, that young children who have access to high quality early years provision are more likely to hold down a good job, to be faster learners, to be more ambitious and focused in their careers and to be more tolerant," she said.

"His findings offer a challenge and an opportunity - we hope that our Executive will take his findings on board, and that they will act on them."

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