Investing in ECD isn’t just about social and economic growth

This week was the biennial UKFIET International Conference on Education and Development. This year'€™s theme was '€œLearning for Sustainable Futures -€“ Making the Connections'€, in perfect timing in the lead-up to the endorsing of the SDGs next week. The intention of the conference theme was to make us reflect on the implications of the SDGs vision for education and learning, especially Goal Four: '€˜ensuring inclusive, quality education for all and promoting lifelong learning'€™.

It's encouraging to see that early childhood development (ECD) is now more firmly on the new international development agenda - and not before time! SDG Target 4.2 proposes '€œby 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education'.€

It was great to see, at the conference, a number of lively presentations and debates on early childhood development and to see some of this reflected in media coverage such as Sourovi De's piece in the Guardian Development. Early childhood is the foundation for all that follows and, as Sourovi De points out, the most cost effective phase for investment to achieve good outcomes for children, families and society.

But there are risks if this narrow instrumental lens on babies and children becomes the sole rationale for investing in policies and services. Early childhood isn'€™t just about preparing children to become productive, useful citizens. It is a crucial and quite extraordinary life phase, to be respected in it'€™s own right, with young children and families entitled to a quality environment, health and education now, and not just because of the benefits that may follow later.

Sectoral hijacking of early childhood is another risk to watch out for, as when educationists focus narrowly on the potential for getting children ready for school, through various forms of pre-primary education, '˜R' Grades, pre-schools and nursery classes. The wording of target 4.2 could reinforce that view. So great care will be needed take to ensure that the scale up of early education programmes is high quality, developmentally appropriate and accessible to all, and not just a crude attempt to solve the weaknesses of primary schools by adding in classrooms for younger children, and '€˜schoolifying'€™ their early childhood.

At worst, this would be like a railway company that faces complaints about their low quality overcrowded, trains that leave late, and lose most of their passengers along the way, reacting by coupling another train on the back to try to push the defective one along, especially if investment in the new train is equally inadequate. If children are provided quality schools, then the evidence all shows that quality early childhood programmes will enhance their learning, confidence and self-esteem. If quality is low at either stage, disadvantaged and poor children especially will be the losers.

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So ECD must be planned holistically, if the SDG goals are to be achieved. Just as education ministries must be encouraged to recognise the ways children'€™s health and nutrition impacts their learning, infant nutrition programmes would benefit from giving greater attention to the opportunities for supporting babies to learn, as well as feed. Numerous expert interventions, programmes and services are an important part of the ECD system, but it'€™s overdue for the early childhood community to build a much more inter-sectoral vision, and more comprehensive support for families. ECD is also dynamic. Just as the foetus, infant, young child and school student experience multiple transformations during their early years, so too, policy and programming must be sensitive to changing needs and priorities at different ages and stages. Chronologically, it spans nearly the first half of childhood. Developmentally, it is even more significant, shaping all that follows.

In 'Early Childhood Development: Delivering inter-€sectoral policies, programmes and services in low-€resource settings', published last year as part of the HEART Policy Topic Guide series, we distinguish the period '€˜from conception to birth€™ from '€˜birth to 2 years'€™, followed by the '€˜preschool years'€™ and the '€˜early school years'€™. But these are not precise phases. They are shaped by cultural beliefs and institutional structures, as well as development changes in children'€™s capacities, vulnerabilities and emerging autonomy; their needs for care, ways of communicating, playing and learning; as well as the patterns of their daily lives in modern societies, including access to ECD services and schools.

The SDG agenda has committed to leaving no-one behind this time. Let'€™s ensure that this attention is given right from the start with the highest quality possible for every young child.