By Nicole Cardinal, Policy and Advocacy Advisor, Save the Children
Maybe not, but all the evidence suggests that the time we spend during these years is the most critical learning period of our lives.
Learning occurs faster in the first eight years than in any other time in a person’s life. According to scientific research, this is the period when the brain develops the neural and sensory connections that provide the building blocks for future learning. Our early childhood experiences also lay the foundation for our long-term physical, intellectual, social and emotional well-being.
It’s surprising given that most of us, me included, tend to think of our learning as only really beginning the moment we set foot in a classroom.
Not so, say the experts.
According to the 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report by UNESCO:
Education opportunities are shaped long before children enter classrooms. The linguistic, cognitive and social skills they develop in early childhood are the real foundations for lifelong learning.
While the importance of the early years is well-recognised in Australia, the value of early childhood care and development (ECCD) in developing countries has received much less attention, recognition and investment. Despite being the first of the Education for All (EFA) goals agreed to at the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000, comprehensive ECCD, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, remains the goal with the least amount of progress.
The lack of focus on children’s early years in development is surprising given the tremendous benefits. According to international research, children who participate in ECCD programs in developing countries demonstrate greater school readiness; are more likely to enrol and stay in primary school; have improved learning outcomes; and attain more years of education.
Good quality early childhood programs can improve lifelong opportunities for the most disadvantaged children in developing countries. In addition to the educational benefits, pre-school or community-based programs that integrate elements of health, nutrition, early learning, and the care and protection of children, translate into a better overall quality of life for disadvantaged children as adults.
In short, investing in the early years helps to level the unequal playing field of life for the poorest children.
One reason behind the slow progress of ECCD in developing countries may be the need for a multi-sectoral approach. Understandably, comprehensive early childhood policies require a certain level of integration and coordination of services across government departments. Without this coordination, the provision of early childhood services tends to be fragmented, unequal or simply non-existent.
Another reason could be the fact that donor and developing countries alike have focused largely on achieving universal primary school education. I’m not saying that we should abandon the goal of universal primary education, especially when 61 million children are still out of primary school and quality remains a pressing issue.
But given that ECCD improves school readiness, learning outcomes, enrolment and retention rates in primary school, in addition to numerous other benefits, we would be remiss not to provide greater investment in it.
Investing in early childhood does not mean we should rush out and immediately start building pre-schools. Rather it can and should involve a combination of pre-school, early grade school and community-based approaches that include parental engagement.
In Pakistan, where 7.3 million children are out of school, Save the Children is taking this multi-pronged approach to early learning by supporting community-based ECCD programs. This approach is helping to improve educational outcomes and increase access to government schools for children, especially girls.
Supported by AusAID, the Early Childhood Care and Education program focuses on a range of activities to support early learning and development including: teacher training; developing learning materials for ECCD including literacy materials; school refurbishment; and supporting home-based ECCD for children who are unable to access government schools in four districts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan.
Just one year into the project, over 27,000 children have benefitted from the program including almost 15,000 girls.
According to the Provincial Minister for Education, Mr. Sardar Hussain Babak, “Such [programs] are appreciated at government level and we look forward to bringing a change in the prevailing education system and the lives of our people.”
There’s still a lot of work to do but by investing in the early years, we can ensure that every child receives a solid foundation for life.
About the author: Nicole Cardinal
Nicole Cardinal is the Policy and Advocacy Advisor with Save the Children.