Long before formal schooling begins, a child starts developing language and social skills, the capacity to learn and healthy habits. Recent research has shown that these early years have a crucial bearing on how a child performs in primary school. That is why providing a supportive, stimulating and safe environment in the first few years of life is so critical. But our region is not paying enough attention to early childhood development: Rates of children attending preschool have grown modestly in the region, climbing from approximately 35% up to 40% in pre-primary gross enrolment in our region in the past five years. The progress has not been evenly distributed, and some countries even have experienced a decline, such as Malaysia at minus 11% and Viet Nam at minus 5%. Less than 10% of young children in Lao PDR and Cambodia have access to preschool or other forms of early learning.
Some governments are slashing budgets for early childhood development and encouraging privatization of the responsibility. In China, for instance, the Ministry of Education no longer covers the cost of running preschools. Such actions make preschool too expensive for poor families and quality control harder.
UNICEF works to ensure that all children have access to quality early childhood development programmes by:• assessing our region’s progress on early childhood development and devising a set of standards in collaboration with governments.
A child’s right to the best possible start in life: Early childhood policy review initiated at a regional training workshop
“The time of early childhood should merit the highest-priority attention when responsible governments are making decisions about laws, policies, progammes and money. Yet tragically for children and for nations, these are the years that receive the least.” – State of the World’s Children, 2001-
In the first 36 months of a child’s life, brain connections multiply and form the motor that will run a child’s thinking and direct behaviour patterns for the rest of life. It is the most critical stage of a child’s development. And it is a precious time – a true window of opportunity – that cannot be re-opened later on. Early childhood care and development has proven a vital investment for both children and society at large. In an effort to improve the quality and access of early childhood care and development (ECCD) in Asia, UNICEF and UNESCO have offered support to nine governments for reviewing their policies on this critical period of human life and social development. It is part of a larger effort to meet the first goal of Education For All which commits all countries to “expanding and improving early childhood care and education.
Working in collaboration, the two agencies will provide technical support to the targeted governments for better delivering and expanding early childhood care, health and education services. In many countries in this region, there is no national ECCD policy and what services do exist vary greatly. The review is intended to promote the importance of early childhood care as a fundamental child right and to better address gender issues and marginalized children. Building on the global experience of the UNESCO-OECD Early Childhood policy review, the initiative is to support countries to identify, document and share good practices as well as constrains and challenges in early childhood policy development and implementation. To initiate the review process, the two agencies invited policy makers and researchers from the nine countries (China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines and Viet Nam) to a workshop in Bangkok (6–8 February) to discuss broad principles and objectives. “It is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large. Investing in disadvantaged young children is such a policy.” (James Heckman, Economist, winner of the Nobel Prize)In opening the three-day workshop, Anupama Rao Singh, UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific, noted that early childhood care is a critical component of meeting the Education for All Goal, the World Fit for Children goals and contributes toward achieving Millennium Development Goals.
A necessary holistic ECCD approach, she said, includes the well-being of mothers as much as the physical and psychosocial well-being of each child. The challenge, she added, is to translate the concept of early childhood care and development into a manageable and comprehensive policy that includes all stakeholders. She advised countries to seek out culturally appropriate policies that build on existing foundations of community and child-rearing practices. “Learning begins at birth,” Sheldon Shaffer, UNESCO Asia-Pacific Director, added in his welcome comments, referring to the declaration from the 1990 Education for All Conference (Thailand) that addressed the need to broaden the scope of basic education.
He said that according to the EFA Global Monitoring Report, while overall pre-primary enrolments have been increased in the region, gaps between and within countries have widened, with some much closer to achieving the goal than others. He also pointed out that ECCD goal does not have quantitative targets but relies on qualitative research. He urged countries to use more qualitative research and analysis to complement their assessment work, especially as part of the reporting for the Education For All Mid-Decade Assessment. The regional workshop provided participants: • A detailed orientation on the conceptual framework and regional guidelines for engaging in an early childhood policy review; • Insight on key issues in early childhood policy;
• Methodologies for research for analysing and assessing policy as well as technical assistance; • An opportunity to review their national guidelines and finalize their country work plans to begin the policy review. National policy reviews are the first step in building consensus and agreement among different stakeholders on how best to put in place a comprehensive set of services. This is critical to ensure a mix of health, nutritional, social, educational and social protection ingredients needed to optimize a child’s development.
Reviews, of course, must be tailored to each country’s context. As Indonesia recently conducted such a review, a country representative highlighted that experience during the workshop. Other discussions drew attention to the distinct review approaches already being considered in China, Mongolia, Nepal and the Philippines. However, the discussions all found common concern for ensuring access to children most in need, especially in rural or poor areas as well as addressing equity, for girls and boys. Other acknowledged challenges included how to encourage community participation, ensure a smooth transition from home to ECCD centre and then to school and how to improve national quality standards.