Minister for Education Ruari Quinn today spoke of redirecting some of the funding for child benefit into the provision of a second free pre-school year.
The Minister said on Morning Ireland this morning that he is "starting a debate" on the issue. The debate seems to be one between himself and Minsters Fitzgerald and Burton. He said:
he had raised the question with Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton as to whether this budget might be spent in “a more effective way”.
I am sure Minister Fitzgerald pointed out to him that she had suggested something similar a few months ago.
Leaving aside that the government should just make decisions about the best use of resources rather than "start debates", there would seem to be good old pork-barrel politics at play here. There is sufficient evidence to support the idea that early intervention with education produces long-term personal and social benefits. Further, the universal aspect of child benefit means it is a terrible way to target support for children and families that need it.
But if Minister Quinn thinks it is such a great idea to provide an additional year of pre-school (and I agree that it is) why doesn't he just fund it from his own budget. It would seem he is interested in getting additional investment in education without having to make any additional difficult choices himself.
For example, his Department currently subsidises students at third-level in Ireland. Although they pay an increasing registration fee, this is not near the full economic cost of third-level education. The return to third-level education is overwhelmingly weighted towards the individual rather than society. Society gets a greater proportionate return from investment in earlier stages of education and the individual benefits most at later stages.
So a reallocation of resources within education from the third-level sector to the pre-school sector would be within Minister Quinn's power and it would make economic sense.
This doesn't mean we don't reform the child benefit system - but that's for another day.
I'm an economist so many of these posts will be about economic issues. But since everyone is allowed a view on economics I am inclined to go beyond my profession to throw my tuppence ha'penny into other issues.