A blog by Nicole Rodger, Policy and Advocacy Lead for Early Childhood Development, Plan International; Jennifer Vu, Early Childhood Education Consultant, UNICEF; and Jean Luc Yameogo, Education Specialist, UNICEF.
Around the world, more than 175 million children are not enrolled in any form of early childhood education. Without access to quality, inclusive ECE, all children, and particularly girls, are at risk of poor learning outcomes and school dropout.
In low-income countries, 8 out of 10 children are missing out on Early Childhood Education (ECE). ECE is chronically underfunded compared to other education levels and access to, and quality of, ECE is not adequately prioritised by governments around the world.
One way to help ensure that ECE is part of the broader education system is to include it in the national education sector planning process. By systematically integrating ECE within national budgets and planning cycles, countries can more effectively implement, and ensure the quality of early childhood education at scale. At the same time, it is vital that these national plans consider how ECE can be supported locally. Giving subnational levels of government (provinces and municipalities) more authority may be a way to fast-track implementation and improve the monitoring of programmes in the ECE subsector.
Particularly for girls, receiving a pre-primary education means they are more likely to stay enrolled in primary school, attend for longer and have an equal or better chance than boys of continuing to the upper grades, and making the transition to secondary school. Provision of quality ECE also reduces the burden of childcare for women and older girls.
Young girls and boys, their families, teachers and schools at community level are the most important stakeholders for improved ECE.
How to support governments to prioritise ECE
In Nepal, both UNICEF and Plan International work closely with the government to prioritise ECE. Research in Nepal shows children who have participated in ECE perform better in school and are more likely to complete a full education cycle.
Through engaging in dialogue with decisionmakers, UNICEF Nepal has assisted with the recognition of holistic Early Childhood Development (ECD) in the Constitution, with one year of ECE being included in the Education Act (2016). Plan International Nepal has supported the preparation of local education plans at the municipal and provincial level, with a focus on ECE, including girls’ retention in school, and has worked at community level to develop models of ECE for showcasing to government. Working to support the enabling environment for ECE locally is also essential. This includes engaging with parents as key stakeholders, to increase their understanding of, and support for, ECE to help create local demand.
As a result of this work, all schools in Nepal have at least one ECE classroom, there is formal teacher professional development for ECE teachers, and an approved ECE curriculum. Including ECE in the national education framework has a demonstrated impact on planning and implementation of ECE at the local level.
Other countries in which UNICEF and Plan International work have also successfully supported Ministries of Education and their district or provincial counterparts to ensure that ECE is included in local development plans and budgets. UNICEF can expertly influence government to prioritise ECE, whilst Plan and its partners can leverage local relationships and experience working directly with education officials, schools, teachers and families to help ensure that ECE initiatives are relevant to local contexts and taken up.
Despite progress, many challenges still remain. Competing priorities and budget pressures, including those due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mean that quality ECE provision for all children still falls through the gaps in many contexts. As part of pandemic management, pre-primary education was often the first to close and last to re-open.
It is essential to continue to work with governments at all levels to ensure they adequately resource ECE. It is also important to look beyond the numbers to communities – it is children and their families, teachers and schools who ultimately benefit from quality, inclusive ECE and it is their needs that should be at the forefront.
ECE Accelerator Toolkit
UNICEF has developed the ECE Accelerator Analysis and Planning Toolkit to support the inclusion and strengthening of ECE in Education Sector Plans and other policy planning processes. This Toolkit is a useful resource both for governments, and for any organisations seeking to provide assistance to governments, on prioritisation of ECE.