The term ‘early childhood care and education’ (ECCE) refers to a range of processes and mechanisms that sustain, support and aid in the holistic development of children, from birth to age 8 years. Due to the rapid neural connections, brain development and growth that take place at this age, this period is considered a critical window of opportunity for optimizing children’s development through the combined impact of education, care, health, nutrition, protection and stimulation. The field of early childhood care and education is replete with evidence that attests to the considerable benefits of good-quality ECCE programmes. Children who have participated in quality ECCE exhibit tremendous gains in their overall social, cognitive and intellectual development. ECCE has contributed to breaking the cycle of poverty; it also offers an entry point and platform for improving social equity and inclusion.
This Asia-Pacific End of Decade Note on Education for All Goal 1 on early childhood care and education starts with an examination of five themes in the Asia-Pacific region:
- Access for vulnerable and disadvantaged children (closely related to finance issues)
- Holistic ECCE (encompassing the health and well-being of young children)
- Standards, regulations and guidelines, and training and capacity-building
- The quality imperative (defining quality and analysing caregiver–child ratios and interactions, parenting and community involvement, curriculum and approaches, coordination among multiple actors, monitoring and evaluation)
This End of Decade Note, or EDN, highlights the variations in definition, scope and progress across the region and the challenges and problems that remain. Although significant progress has been made in all five themes, some daunting challenges persist:
- Adequate training, certification and incentives for ECCE practitioners (teachers and caregivers) are lacking.
- Public funding for ECCE remains negligible.
- Attention to marginalized and disadvantaged groups (those in remote areas, minorities and indigenous communities) is limited. In particular, difficulties in providing ECCE services and support to these groups continue to be formidable.
- Coordination between sectors is weak (especially for services for children aged 0–3 years). Holistic ECCE must include the mother, a parent and/or the family.
- There is an urgent need for relevant data; frequently, available information is also scattered across ministries and agencies. This issue is further compounded by issues of accuracy, lack of harmony with data from other sectors and agencies and incomplete reporting on internationally agreed basic indicators. Available data from other sectors (health, nutrition and child protection) need to be integrated, with a particular focus on vulnerable groups.
- There is also a lack of preparedness for ECCE in situations of emergencies, disasters and conflicts.
Based on the analysis of the progress and challenges and on the urgency for achieving Education for All (EFA) Goal 1 by 2015, the following recommendations are offered for each of the five themes.
(The recommendations are also based on consultations with ECCE experts in the region, the Steering Committee members of the Asia-Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood, specialists within international organizations, UNESCO and UNICEF and EFA coordinators in charge of ECCE in countries across the region.) Not all the recommendations are feasible or realistic for all countries and are offered only as guidelines; national EFA teams should examine the significance, relevance and feasibility of each recommendation and align, adapt or modify them to meet their national needs, priorities and goals.
Policy-making: The recommendations call for: i) a strengthening of the reporting structures for data and knowledge management, particularly on the basic ECCE indicators; ii) explicit and clear statements specifically directed towards issues relating to children aged 0–3 years in policy documents, guidelines and frameworks; iii) constructive engagement with experts and practitioners within a country to build a sound evidence base; iv) disaggregation of data to ensure the inclusion of research on children in indigenous communities, in ethnolinguistic groups, with disabilities, in emergency situations, residing in rural and remote areas and in conflict and post-conflict situations; and v) the documenting and scaling up of innovative practices.
Access for vulnerable and disadvantaged children: The recommendations advocate for: i) the use of low-cost, safe and indigenous materials to improve the quality of activities and programme content; ii) activities and programming that are based on culturally salient practices that benefit children; iii) engaging local talent creatively in the service of improving programme content and quality, including grandparents and other family members in the programme scheduling; iv) ensuring a smooth transition from ECCE to primary school through administrative as well as relational strategies; and v) encouraging and supporting play-based rather than overly formal pedagogical approaches.
Holistic ECCE: The recommendations suggest: i) formal, written agreements among actors and agencies; ii) integrating personnel from the various ministries and departments through regular telephone or e-mail contact; iii) ensuring that the nodal or principal ministry or department reaches out to other sectors (education, health care, nutrition, women’s and children’s affairs, child and family social welfare, protection, etc.); iv) ensuring the inclusion of local administrative representatives in national coordinating mechanisms; v) including parents and family members in national coordinating mechanisms; vi) increasing budget allocations for implementing and monitoring existing policies and frameworks; and vii) strengthening financial commitments for policies on the very young (0–3 years) and their implementation.
Standards, regulations and guidelines, and training and capacity-building: The recommendations seek: i) the establishment and/or enforcement of ECCE standards; ii) the standardizing and regulating of teacher qualifications that are meaningful and based on research evidence; iii) creative formats for training caregivers through media, radio programming, etc.; iv) the establishment of culturally relevant, play-based, age-appropriate curriculum guidelines for educating the very young, including safe, indigenous and low-cost resources for play and stimulation; v) virtual education and the expanded use of information and communications technology; vi) the involvement of experienced research and expert practitioners in in-service and pre-service training initiatives, mentoring and monitoring of caregivers and teachers; vii) incentives and skills training for ECCE caregivers and teachers, particularly in rural and remote areas and in conflict, post-conflict or emergency contexts.
The quality imperative: The recommendations call for increased allocation of financial resources for strengthening family-based or home-based ECCE programmes, including increased engagement with community-based caregivers on creating resources and materials for mother tongue-based instruction and with parent groups in national consultations, especially in defining criteria for quality ECCE.