ECE on the global agenda
While ECE has quite a long history in some countries, it is relatively new as an educational service in many others. The World Declaration on Education for All (EFA) at Jomtien, Thaïland, in 1990, introduced the idea that “learning begins at birth”, anchoring ECE as an integral part of basic education and an educational level in its own right. This was further institutionalised through the 2000 Dakar EFA Declaration. One of the six internationally agreed education goals to be reached by 2015 is: “Expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children”
The value of ECE is symbolically highlighted by the titles used for major reports through the last decade - the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s “Starting Strong” reports, the 2007 UNESCO EFA Global Monitoring Report “Strong Foundations” and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) “Right Beginnings” from earlier this year. They all state the importance of a good and nourishing learning environment through ECE for young children. Following the ILO study, there was a Global Dialogue Forum which stated the following in their consensus points: “The evidence is clear that early years’ education is a good investment for all further educational development, social inclusion and development, recognition and respect of children’s rights and improved economic returns for individuals and society,” and further: “To achieve universal access and quality objectives, governments, who have the major responsibility for the organisation and funding of ECE, should devote more resources and policy attention to ECE as the foundation level of education”. These are good messages. ECE is of value to all children and society, and governments are responsible for delivering the services. We must repeatedly remind them of what universal access and quality objectives are.
A holistic approach to learning
ECE is important and beneficial to young children. But we must keep a close eye on what is going on. We must remember how children learn and develop, and keep in mind that education is a cultural activity that must feed into the society in which it is based. We must also remember that the Convention on the Rights of the Child also confirms the right to play and the right to participate in cultural activities. This is also a part of quality ECE. There is no global model for ECE and therefore it has to be created in each and every country. But we can inspire each other and learn from each other. So let me share a passage from the goals for the Norwegian Early Childhood Education system:
“The children shall be able to develop their creative zest, sense of wonder and need to investigate. They shall learn to take care of themselves, each other and nature. The children shall develop basic knowledge and skills. They shall have the right to participate in accordance with their age and abilities.”
Our children deserve the best we can give them. They are our county’s largest asset and its future. I urge all EI affiliates to put ECE on the agenda. The EI resolution on ECE from the 1998 World Congress is still valid and a good starting point. The strategy paper adopted at the World Congress last year, gives even further direction. The main principles stated there should guide us all:
- ECE should be a public service and an integral part of a country’s education system;
- ECE should be provided free of charge and be available to all children, including those with special needs;
- The same status of pedagogical training should be provided for all teachers, including early childhood teachers;
- Teachers in ECE should have the same rights, status and entitlements as teachers in other sectors; and
- Both men and women should be recruited and trained as early childhood teachers.
Let us all use this global window of opportunity to further develop the best possible education for our youngest citizens. They deserve it.
Why such an interest?
There may be a great interest for early years, but the reasons why aren’t always the same. First of all it is a sector of great opportunity for providers who are looking for a new market. It is expanding, salary levels are relatively low and there is often public funding available – or, parents who are willing to pay. There have been private providers on the scene for a long time, but now we see large for-profit corporations entering the arena. Some of these providers are genuinely interested in education, but some are just in it for the business. We need to be careful.
At the same time there is the “PISA-wave” which has encouraged politicians who want to be best at the game to start preparing children for the tests early. Often this is combined with a rather narrow view of education focusing on easily measurable skills. We want politicians who engage, and we want more children to have a chance at early education. But we don’t want excessive testing and a childhood where play and creativity is underrated.
We also see an increased focus on children’s rights and a new view of childhood and children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has in the course of the 1990’s been ratified by most countries. It is now common to speak of small children as citizens. This puts the child at the centre and asks what he or she needs and wants. Even this approach can have its downfalls. The Norwegian childhood researcher Anne Trine Kjoerholt points out that too much responsibility might be put on the shoulders of young children. She asks for citizenship in child size and reminds us that children’s rights are not only to participate, but also to be protected and provided for.
And of course there is the increased demand from parents. Family structures are changing and a great many women no longer are fulltime homemakers.