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Barack and the guru of Belfield

Resource type: News

Irish Independent |

Obama’s economics expert is in UCD researching pre-schoolers

Original Source

By Kim Bielenberg

He is the economics guru who could help to shape the future of America — and he is currently carrying out research on pre-school children in Dublin.

As he plans to solve the dire economic problems besetting the United States, Barack Obama is likely turn to James Heckman, currently Professor of Science and Society at UCD.

Professor Heckman, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, believes the key to improving the education for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds is to intervene long before they reach school.

He is even researching the effects of working with Irish parents before babies have left the womb.

As part of his research in UCD, the American academic has been working with families on the northside of Dublin.

During the recent presidential election campaign, Barack Obama cited research by Professor Heckman about education spending.

The UCD professor calculates that that for every dollar of public money spent on help for infants and their families before the age of three, there is a $7 to $10 decrease in spending on remedial education and prisons.

The Nobel laureate helped to draft Obama’s education policies prior to the recent election campaign.

Heckman was lured to Dublin under the Irish Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI).

The programme, initiated with the help of the philanthropist Chuck Feeney a decade ago, aims to turn Ireland into one of the world’s leading centres of research.

Over the past decade €865m has been invested in PRTLI projects. The Government is expected to announce details of a new tranche of funding for the scheme shortly.

Details of Heckman’s work with disadvantaged children in Dublin are revealed in a new book on the PRTLI, Transformations — How Research is Changing Ireland. The book is due to be launched tomorrow by the Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe.

Professor Heckman has suggested that persistent and concentrated poverty is the biggest source of education difficulties.

He believes the most cost-effective measures to tackle education difficulties are taken outside the classroom. According to Heckman, the interventions have to be intensive.

Parents should be counselled from the moment of conception. These consultations should continue from birth onwards with visits by nurses.

Heckman advocates giving parents tutoring in their homes on how to improve the learning skills of their children.

Professor Heckman believes these early interventions are not just about social justice.

“Early interventions for disadvantaged children promote schooling, raise the quality of the workforce, enhance the productivity of schools and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency. They raise earnings and promote social attachment.”

In his Dublin work, Professor Heckman has been carrying out research on Preparing for Life, a scheme that attempts to improve the prospects of young children in areas of Dublin with social and economic problems.

The scheme is largely funded by Chuck Feeney’s charity, Atlantic Philanthropies.

PFL is a five-year school preparation programme, which began with the recruitment of 200 pregnant women on the northside of Dublin. Among those taking part are members of the Travelling community.

A team works with families from pregnancy onwards and aims to support the healthy development of the child.

Recent research in selected areas of north Dublin found that the majority of young children were not ready to start school when they arrived in Junior Infants. Many of these children lived in single-parent families, often led by young mothers.

Some 40pc of these young mothers had themselves left school by the age of 12.

If Preparing For Life proves successful, it is likely to be copied in other disadvantaged areas of Dublin.

Professor Heckman says: “Experimental interventions targeted towards disadvantaged children have much higher economic returns than later interventions such as reduced pupil-teacher ratios, public job training and convict rehabilitation programmes.”

Dr Orla Doyle, one of the researchers who is evaluating the Programme for Life, said she hoped the project would make a direct difference to the lives of children in North Dublin.

The children will be tracked through their first five years and their learning development will be studied.

The New York Times recently reported that Barack Obama has earmarked $10bn a year for early childhood intervention in the United States.

– Kim Bielenberg

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