Early childhood education: an international development issue

by Ian Whitman
Head of the Programme for Co-operation with Non Member Economies, OECD Directorate for Education

Quality, quality, quality – that’s what matters most. This was the overwhelming cry at the international conference I attended in Beijing this week on early childhood development, “Child Leads, Equity Counts”. Feng Xiaoxia, the Former President of the Chinese National Society of Early Childhood Education went as far as to say that without quality (in early childhood education and care), access doesn’t much matter.
Evidence bears the importance of quality out, as we find in Investing in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC):

The Effective Pre-school and Primary Education (EPPE) longitudinal study carried out in English found that the quality of pre-school setting was still exerting a positive effect on literacy and maths after the children had been at school for five years. However, the children who had gone to low-quality pre-schools were no different from those who had not gone to pre-school at all.

My fellow conference participants felt very strongly about the issue of quality and stressed that though it is not cheap, it was well worth it. It can take decades to see the results of quality early childhood education and care, which makes it difficult for some governments to invest, but we have hard evidence and real results. We are not only seeing improved school performance (PISA shows that pre-school attendance can put students ahead by one year in reading, compared to their classmates), but increased societal benefit (increased female employment which can lift families out of poverty, for example) and individual benefit (better health, less of a tendency to engage in risky behavior, and more of a likelihood to contribute to society).

Equity was another issue close to their hearts. China currently has 96 million children under the age of six. In 1978, there were 8 million kindergarteners; in 2009 the number tripled to 26.9 million (with 56% coverage). There is a need to ensure the same early childhood services for migrant children as for others. Currently, only 20% of migrant children benefit from these services, whereas 70% is the average for China.
“Mobile ger-kindergartens” is one of the solutions being used in Mongolia (as well as in China). These kindergartens move and follow herder populations. Less expensive to construct and maintain, they are meeting the needs of nomadic populations by setting themselves up near 10-15 herder families during the summer months. They enroll 12-15 children at a time for three to four weeks, and then move on to the next location. Though this is a much-needed service, access to quality preschool education is still below the norm for herder children. Mongolia has identified this as one of their challenges in early childhood development.
As Chen Zhili, former Education Minister and Vice Chairwoman of the 11th Standing Committee of the People’s National Congress and President of the All China Women’s Federation so rightly put it, “Our children are the hope of nations.” Leaving this conference, I agreed and know that we are doing all we can to give them every chance. 
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Photo: Mobile ger-kindergarten, Mongolia Credit: Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, Mongolia


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