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Early Childhood Education Critical First Step

UN Says Early Childhood Education Is Neglected Critical First Step In Broader Development

New York, Oct 26 2006 4:00PM

Despite well-documented, long-term benefits, early childhood education remains the “forgotten link” in education policy around the globe, with half of the world’s countries having no early childhood policy and providing woefully inadequate financing for this critical age group, a comprehensive United Nations study has found.

Less than 10 per cent of total public education expenditures in 65 of the 79 countries reviewed were devoted to pre-primary education, the report said, and for more than half of these countries this spending was under 5 per cent.

Devoting more resources especially to the most disadvantaged children should be the “first step” of a broader national early childhood care and education policy, said the report, which was commissioned by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

“All the evidence around the world is that the returns to investing in early childhood programme are extremely high, particularly for the poor and disadvantaged but yet …. [they] are the least likely to be involved in these programmes,” Nicholas Burnett, director of the report told a news conference today.

The best evidence on the benefits of early learning programmes comes from industrial countries. A 1960s study of low-income African-American children, tracked until they were age 40, showed 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,” an accompanying UNESCO release said.

Mr. Burnett said it was critical for countries to spend more resources on children under three years of age not only because it is a basic right, but also because it spurs further education – which contributes to development – a significant factor reducing social inequality.

Early childhood programmes can also significantly reduce the toll among the more than 10 million children under five who die yearly of mostly preventable diseases. “Programmes that combine nutrition, immunization, health, hygiene, care and education can change this,” he said.

Although international aid to support basic education in low income countries has roughly doubled in recent years – from $1.8 billion to $3.4 billion between 2000 and 2004 – this is well short of the $11 billion annually that experts believe is needed now to achieve the goal of education for all.

“The price tag is going up even as more money is being given but I would say the other side of that is that the cost of failure or the price of failure is going up also and you simply have to look around everyday and read the news to understand the cost of not giving children a good early childhood education,” said Peter Smith, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General at the same press conference in New York.

While noting that there has been significant progress in increasing primary school enrolment, retention rates are not good, with less than two-thirds of pupils in sub-Saharan African countries finishing the final grade.

“We are doing a better job of getting children to school but we are doing a not better job keeping them in school ….[and] we have to understand that an open door that turns into a revolving door is not a good thing,” Mr. Smith added.

The report released today – “Strong foundations: early childhood care and education” – is the first of six in a series devoted to meeting the Education for All goals the world is committed to achieving by 2015.

Demand for early education and care is expanding rapidly, spurred by higher numbers of women on the labour market and more single-parent households, the report said, noting that in 1975, on average, one child in 10 was enrolled in pre-primary institutions but that by 2004 coverage had increased to about one child in three.

Participation in pre-school ranges from 62 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean to 12 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa, while pre-school is universal in most Western European countries, the report noted.


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