Early childhood care and education the forgotten link claims new report published by UNESCOLatin America and the Caribbean leads the developing world in the provision of pre-school education, according to the annual Education for All Global Monitoring Report*, published by UNESCO today. However, despite well-documented benefits for child development and well-being, the Report finds that this area remains the forgotten link in the education chain in many regions, and that half the world’s countries have no early childhood care and education policy for children under age three.
Early childhood care and education, the first of six Education for All goals the world is committed to achieving by 2015*, is the theme of this edition of the Report. The study also includes an assessment of progress towards the other five objectives, showing a marked acceleration in primary school enrolments, for both boys and girls, and an increase in aid to education, offset in several countries by a decline in national education spending.
Continued progress towards universal primary education (UPE), especially in regions farthest from the goals. Enrolments in primary education increased sharply between 1999 and 2004 in sub-Saharan Africa (27%) and South and West Asia (19%) though only by 6% in the Arab States.
“It is no coincidence that the first Education for All goal focuses on the youngest and most vulnerable children,” said Koichïro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO. “Improving their well-being at the earliest age must be an integral and systematic component of education and poverty reduction policies. High-level political endorsement is essential to getting early childhood care and education on the agenda.”
“Early childhood programmes make for strong foundations and pay high dividends,” says Nicholas Burnett, director of the Report. “Each year in the developing world, over 10 million children die before age five of mostly preventable diseases. Programmes that combine nutrition, immunization, health, hygiene, care and education can change this. They are also a determining contributor to better achievement in school. Despite this, the children who stand most to benefit from such programmes are those least likely to have access to them.”
Participation in pre-school ranges from 62% in Latin America and the Caribbean, as against only 35% in the developing countries of East Asia and the Pacific, 32% in South and West Asia to 16% in the Arab States and 12% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pre-school is universal in most Western European countries. Enrolments fell sharply in transition countries after the break up of the Soviet Union but are now recovering.
The report, “Strong foundations: early childhood care and education,” shows that demand for early education and care is expanding rapidly, spurred by higher numbers of women on the labour market and more single-parent households. In 1975, on average, one child in 10 was enrolled in pre-primary institutions; by 2004 coverage had increased to about one child in three.
The best evidence on the benefits of early learning programmes comes from industrial countries. The US High/Scope Perry Preschool Program conducted in the 1960s targeted low-income African-American children assessed to be at high risk of school failure. Participants and a control group were tracked several times until age 40. Results showed clearly that participation led to increased IQ at age 5, higher rates of graduation from secondary school and higher earnings, with overall benefits exceeding costs at a ratio of 17:1. Research in fields ranging from neurobiology to psychology amply confirms how a child’s physical and psychological development is shaped by experiences during the first years of life.
According to another study cited in the Report, the higher an African country’s pre-primary enrolment ratio, the lower its repetition rate and the higher its primary school completion rate. Economic analyses in Egypt found a benefit/cost ratio of 3:1, with higher benefits if the early childhood programmes are targeted to children most at risk
However, financing for early childhood programmes is a low priority in most countries: less than 10% of total public education expenditure was allocated to pre-primary education in 65 of the 79 countries with 2004 data available; over half allocated less than 5%.
In a field characterized in many countries by strong reliance on private funding, the Report warns that public policy must set quality standards and regulations to safeguard against inequalities.
The Report states that targeting resources to the most disadvantaged children should be the first step of a broader national early childhood care and education policy for all children. India, for example, concentrates on urban slums, tribal areas and remote rural regions. Home- and community-based programmes in countries as diverse as Ireland, Colombia and Kenya are successfully reaching disadvantaged families, offering guidance to parents and care arrangements for young children.
The Report also emphasizes the importance of quality carers in early childhood programmes. Yet in developing countries, those working with young children typically receive less training than their primary school counterparts.
Even in industrialized countries, highly trained educators often work alongside untrained child care workers, many of them part-time or volunteers. Some countries like the UK are moving to close the gap between education and care workers by introducing a national minimum wage in early childhood care and education.
The Report also presents its annual assessment of progress towards the other Education for All goals. It shows:
A steady decrease in the number of primary school aged children who are out of school: according to government data their number has dropped by 21 million since 1999 to 77 million in 2004. More than three-quarters live in Sub-Saharan Africa, and South and West Asia. Four countries alone account for about 23 million children out of school (Nigeria, Pakistan, India and Ethiopia).
About two-thirds of the 181 countries with 2004 data have achieved gender parity in primary education. Disparities at the expense of girls remain significant in many countries, often those with the lowest enrolment ratios (including Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Chad, Pakistan, the Niger and Yemen). Only one-third of countries have achieved gender parity at the secondary level.
Primary school completion remains a major challenge: in Latin America and the Caribbean, less than 83% of children enrolled in grade one reach the last grade; in the majority of Sub- Saharan African countries, fewer than two-thirds of pupils reach the last grade.
Adult literacy rates remain below 70% in the Arab States, South and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, one in five adults remains unable to read or write.
The Report makes a number of recommendations to address these problems, most notably:
Hiring more teachers – sub-Saharan Africa needs to recruit at least 1.6 million more teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015 – shorter pre-service training for teachers, more on-the-job practice and incentives to work in remote and rural areas.
Making school more affordable for children by abolishing school fees, providing financial incentives to reduce household dependence on child labour and special assistance for children affected by HIV/AIDS.
Many governments are not spending enough on basic education. Although public education spending increased between 1999 and 2004 in most countries, spending as a percentage of GNP fell in 41 cases, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in South and West Asia.
Aid to basic education in low-income countries increased from US$1.8 billion to US$3.4 billion between 2000 and 2004 (from US$2.6 to $4.4 billion across all developing countries). Donor pledges will likely increase this to US$5.4 billion by 2010. But this is still well short of the $11 billion per year needed now to achieve EFA in low-income countries, says the Report.
The Report includes an Education for All Development Index (EDI), a composite of indicators on UPE, gender, quality and literacy. It reveals that out of 125 countries with data available, only 47 - mostly in Europe, but also including six in Latin America and the Caribbean and four in Central Asia - have achieved the six Education for All goals, or are close to doing so.
Twenty rank in the lowest EDI category. Two-thirds are in Sub-Saharan Africa but this category also includes several Arab States and countries in South and East Asia.
The full Report, summary report and additional information is available on www.efareport.unesco.org
*The EFA Global Monitoring Report is an annual publication prepared by an independent team based at UNESCO. It monitors progress towards the six Education for All goals adopted in Dakar, Senegal in 2000:
1) expand and improve early childhood care and education
2) provide free and compulsory universal primary education by 2015
3) equitable access to learning and life-skills programmes
4) achieve a 50% improvement in adult literacy rates
5) eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005 and at all levels by 2015
6) improve all aspects of the quality of education
UNESCO as the lead coordinating agency for the Education for All movement is mobilizing and harmonizing international efforts by governments, development agencies, civil society, non-government organizations and the media, to reach these goals.
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