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Down Under: UTSC economist joins international team studying Australian child care

CHILD CARE STUDY: Economist Gordon Cleveland (far right) is part of an Australian research project on child care that is the largest of its kind in that country. He is pictured with some four-year-olds on campus at the N'Sheemaehn Child Care Centre. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

An economist at U of T Scarborough has been named to an international team working on a five-year, multi-million dollar study of the effectiveness and economics of child care in Australia.

Dr. Gordon Cleveland, a senior lecturer in economics who has been with UTSC since 1992, is the only Canadian participant in an ambitious and far-reaching study of child care in the world’s biggest island nation that is also a continent. The University of Melbourne is the lead partner organization for this major study, which has a total budget of $16.8 million Australian (about $16.5 million Canadian).

Studies around the globe have shown that early learning programs play a vital role in determining young people’s future success, both in the education system and in later life. That’s why the Australian government and other partners are investing in this broad study.

Cleveland joins a dozen other researchers from Australia and the UK who will assess the effectiveness of early childhood education and care programs. His role as lead economist is especially crucial as the project gets under way, when the data collection process and overall study design are being determined. “Economists are very careful about methodology,” he explains, “and because any conclusions may influence policy, the data will need to be supported by sound numbers that speak to the policy people in government.”

The project aims to ensure that Australian children are offered the best possible start to formal learning, giving special attention to three- and four-year-olds and monitoring the outcomes of their early educational experiences over a five-year period. About 2,500 children in the Australian states of Victoria and Queensland will be studied. Researchers will focus on how Australia can make the most of the $3 billion it invests annually in early childhood education and care, and the project will draw on expertise from researchers in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. The project is the largest of its kind in Australia to monitor and study children on site in various types of child care and early education services.

The project, titled “E4Kids – Effectiveness of Early Educational Experiences” received $2.2 million (Aus.) from the Australian Research Council (ARC) as part of a linkage grant focusing on interdisciplinary projects relevant to all of society. This is believed to be one of ARC’s largest-ever linkage grants for a project in social sciences and humanities. Other funding and resources came from the Victoria government’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, The Queensland government’s Department of Education and Training and its Office for Early Childhood Education and Care; and the participating institutions, including the University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology, the University of London, the University of Toronto Scarborough, and The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

The far-reaching study is expected to have implications for child care policy in other countries, including Canada. Cleveland first met several of the current research partners while he was on sabbatical in Australia in 2001-2002. He will spend the coming winter term in Australia working on the project.

“I’m excited to be a part of this project, particularly because it offers a unique opportunity to work with solid data that measure the quality of early education experiences that children receive. Gathering this type of data appropriately requires a lot of funds, and I’m pleased to be involved at the very beginning to ensure that the study design and collection of data are organized in a way that will facilitate causal research. In order to provide good policy advice to governments, our research program needs to provide credible evidence of the causal effects of changes in early childhood programs on different aspects of the development of young children.”

Cleveland has been appointed an Honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne, giving him an office and access to university and library resources and facilities at the university Down Under.

The 13-member research team includes educators, psychologists, early child care specialists and health care professionals. “They also needed an economist,” says Cleveland. “We hope that a study of this scope will have policy outcomes, and our government partners want to see a sound assessment of the costs and benefits of any potential policy changes. That’s my role.”

Studies around the world have provided evidence that access to early learning programs is a crucial determinant in an individual’s education and life outcomes, according to Professor Collette Tayler, Chair of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) at the University of Melbourne, and the study’s Principal Investigator. Those early years have an enduring impact on an individual’s productivity and social participation, she says. “Although 61.5 per cent of three-year-olds and four-year-olds in Australia currently attend ECEC programs that receive public funds, the children’s experiences within these programs vary widely and impact upon educational and social outcomes,” Tayler said. “This is why a study such as this, which will enable educators and policy-makers to make evidence-based decisions, can assist in ensuring positive life journeys for Australian children.”

Researchers will be visiting and analyzing different types of child care services in diverse Australian communities classified as: remote, regional, urban, disadvantaged and wealthy.  The team will also evaluate the quality of care and later outcomes for children who do not access formal child care programs but are instead cared for in the home or by friends or relatives.

National child care studies of this scope are unusual, Cleveland says, pointing out that Canada has not conducted one since 1988. The Australian study will therefore be closely followed by education experts around the globe, including those in Canada. The members of the research team are counting on their economist colleague to help generate results that will be meaningful to policy makers. "For me, this study in Australia is a real opportunity: if you want to do good research in this area, you have to spread your wings a bit.”

Cleveland first became interested in the economics of child care when he was doing his PhD, which he completed in 1990. “At that time I had young kids, and perhaps it’s not surprising that when it came to choosing a thesis topic, my family life and my academic interests came together,” he said. Cleveland studied under economics professor Morley Gunderson at the U of T St. George campus. “Over the last 20 or 30 years, the field of economics has taken its techniques of thinking and its approach to statistics and applied them to broader and broader areas. You now have economists who focus on crime, population issues, educational issues and so on. Perhaps it would have been seen as unusual 30 years ago for an economist to be working on child care, but it’s no longer that peculiar.”

The research team members are as follows: Prof. Collette Tayler, (P.I.) Prof. Ray Adams; Mr. Dan Cloney (Project Manager); Prof. Patrick Griffin; Dr. Karin Ishimine; Prof. Ann Sanson, and Prof. Elizabeth Waters; all from The University of Melbourne. Other team members are: Prof. Gordon Cleveland, University of Toronto Scarborough; Dr. Timothy Gilley, Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development; Ms. Carol Markie-Dadds, Queensland Department of Education and Training; Prof. Frank Oberklaid, The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne; Prof. Iram Siraj-Blatchford, Institute of Education, University of London (UK); and Prof. Karen Thorpe, Queensland University of Technology.

© University of Toronto Scarborough