Early childhood care and education (ECCE) has become a key concern for education policy-makers and stakeholders. There is mounting research evidence on its benefits for children's capacities and educational achievements as well as its critical role in realising equitable, quality education and life-long learning. ECCE is also reinforced by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Adopted at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, two of the MDGs have direct relevance to early childhood development: (i) improving maternal health, with the targets of reducing the maternal mortality rates by three-quarters and providing universal access to reproductive health (MDG-4), and (ii) reducing the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015 (MDG-5). Thus, the child and maternal health aspects of ECCE became part and parcel of a global 'effort to meet the needs of the world's poorest'. In the recent decades, ECCE has further received attention from diverse stakeholders including civil society and intergovernmental organisations.
Addressing the themes of investment rationales, equity and quality, the UNESCO publication 'Investing against Evidence: The Global State of Early Childhood Care and Education' features various lessons from research and experience from different countries across the world. This volume is mainly rooted in the 2010 'World Conference of ECCE'. It focuses on most of the themes addressed during the conference which remain pertinent. These themes are used to organise the volume into three main parts: i) the development rationale for investing in holistic ECCE, ii) equity and inclusion in ECCE, and iii) the quality of ECCE. The book contains fourteen chapters contributed by twenty-five scholars and experts.
As noted in the publication, the conceptualisation of ECCE as holistic and multi-sectoral is gaining acceptance. Unlike other areas of education, ECCE places strong emphasis on developing the whole child - attending to his or her social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs - in order to establish a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and well-being. 'Care' includes health, nutrition and hygiene in a warm, secure and nurturing environment; and 'education' includes stimulation, socialisation, guidance, participation, learning and developmental activities. ECCE begins at birth and can be organised in a variety of non-formal, formal and informal modalities, such as parenting education (Britto and Engle, Chapter 8), health-based mother and child intervention (Sall, Chapter 9), care institutions (Legrand et al., Chapter 10), child-to-child programmes (Serpell and Nsamenang, Chapter 12), home-based or centre-based childcare, kindergartens and pre-schools (e.g. Rao and Sun, Chapter 11).
The importance of coordinated approaches and strategies in ECCE across policy sectors is highlighted by several authors in this volume. Shonkoff (Chapter 2) emphasises the benefits of more coordinated approaches to early education, public health, child protection, social welfare, and economic development that are guided by well-established, knowledge-based principles. Legrand et al. (Chapter 10) point out that vulnerable and disadvantaged families generally require multi-sectoral support to maintain them and to cope with sudden changes in their circumstances. Such support is made possible through different sectors working together to address diverse vulnerabilities related to housing, health, welfare, family support, employment and education. Palmer (Chapter 13) asserts that comprehensive programmes addressing health, nutrition and development have proven most effective in early childhood, especially when directed at very young and vulnerable children. She points out that achieving a cross-sectoral approach is a key curricular challenge as it involves building workable collaborative platforms among different sectors and individuals with differing expectations and institutional cultures.
Evidence shows that equity of the quality ECCE promotes greater social equity and that disadvantaged children benefit most from ECCE (Barnett and Nores, Chapter 3; Vandenbroeck, Chapter 5). This volume presents evidence related to multiple factors of disadvantage including gender (Leo-Rhynie, Chapter 4), disabilities (Lata, Chapter 7), migrant backgrounds (Vandenbroeck, Chapter 5), emergency and conflict situations (El Zein and Chehab, Chapter 6), varying institutional care (Legrand et al., Chapter 10), and poverty and rural dwelling (Rao and Sun, Chapter 11).
In brief, by compensating for disadvantage in the home and community, quality ECCE can offer disadvantaged children a good beginning in life and help them start primary school on an equal footing with the advantaged children. It can support their physical and psychological well-being, resilience and better life prospects, as well as values that favour gender and social equality.
Quality ECCE is one that ensures the child's holistic development, provides relevant educational and social interactions, and works collaboratively with parents, communities, support services and primary schools to foster wellbeing, inclusion, social cohesion and continuity of learning and experiences. The authors in this volume diversely characterise quality focusing on some of its enablers. For instance, Barnett and Nores (Chapter 3) present quality as essentially meaning that the child has enriching experiences and predominantly those with the teacher. Parental involvement is a key ingredient in raising the quality of ECCE provision. Building a welcoming programme for the child is not possible without welcoming his or her parents. However, involving and welcoming parents can be challenging especially in contexts of diversity, as it requires building genuine reciprocity in an asymmetrical relationship between the educator and parents. Vandenbroeck (Chapter 5) states that while some determinants of high quality can be defined, those in contexts of diversity cannot because quality needs to be negotiated with parents and local communities. This, he claims, entails a democratic process that can lead to unpredictable results. Therefore, 'highly qualified educators are needed and must be supported to work in contexts of unpredictability and uncertainty'.
Every young child has an undeniable right to holistic development and a strong start in life. The UNESCO publication suggests that quality ECCE, whether provided within families, households and community settings or through more formal institutions, can actualise this right. The book argues for reversing the trend of 'investing against evidence' so that children - and especially the disadvantaged ones - and societies can reap the proven benefits of quality early childhood care and education.
The writer is an independent researcher.