Levelling the playing field through early childhood care and education
By Abhiyan Rana,
Over the course of my career with UNICEF I’ve seen first-hand the evidence that children who receive early learning opportunities are not only more likely to go on to enrol in primary school, they are more likely to enrol at the right age and more likely to stay, do well and complete school.
From Ethiopia to Yemen to Bangladesh, I’ve seen children from a variety of backgrounds flourish in supportive learning environments. Yet, according to the latest Global Monitoring Report (GMR) figures, although there have been significant increases in pre-primary education enrolment, more than half the world’s population, especially girls from the poorest and hardest to reach communities, miss out on early learning services.
Studies consistently support the need to invest more in early childhood development to ensure that children, particularly girls, receive the same opportunities and start in life, breaking down traditional stereotypes, enabling them to reach their full potential and ending the cycle of poverty. We can – and must – do more.
What we know
According to UNESCO, children from high-income families are much more likely than those from low-income families to experience pre-primary education – across all countries. However, when children from both these socio-economic groups receive similar early childhood care and education (ECCE) services, the results are staggeringly similar: Educational performance improves, positively affecting later employment opportunities, and children are healthier, happier and better adjusted as adults. This is particularly true for girls.
Studies show that in Brazil, girls from low-income families who attend preschool are twice as likely to reach Grade 5 and three times as likely to reach Grade 8 as those who did not attend any preschool programme. In Nepal the figures are also remarkable. In Grade 1 the gender split among children with ECCE experience is around 50 boys to 50 girls, but the gap becomes vividly apparent among those who did not have any ECCE opportunities – 61 boys to 39 girls. Furthermore the promotion rate from Grade 1 to 2 is a startling 84 per cent for children with ECCE as compared to only 42 per cent for those with no ECCE experience. Dalit children from the most disadvantaged parts of Nepalese society who attend ECCE programmes are being promoted in school at the same rate as children from more well-off groups. Thus, early childhood education and care programmes level the playing field, closing the gaps between genders and socio-economic groups both. 
To ensure the rights of women and girls are respected and safeguarded, we must consider issues of gender socialization (for males as well as females) from the earliest stages of child development. In addition to positive gender socialization at a very young age in the homes, early learning programmes and pre-primary education initiatives can break through gender stereotypes and male and female behavior patterns, thereby dissolving the roots of discrimination against girls.
When we intervene early and include families and communities in discussions, we can create and reinforce new values based on human rights and the promotion of gender equality. This, in turn, builds the self-esteem of girls and can have a transformative impact on societies.
Cost-effective with a high rate of return
Investment in early childhood care and education also makes sense from a financial perspective, providing the greatest return on investment, in terms of the long term effect on health, learning, behaviour and societies. Professor James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, argues that “there is no smarter investment than early education”. 
In addition to providing great return on investment, quality programmes do not have to be expensive. Here at UNICEF, in partnership with the Child-to-Child Trust, we’ve been implementing school readiness pilot programmes in countries with low pre-primary enrollment. Getting Ready for School: A Child-to-Child Approach is a supplemental, equitable, cost-effective and efficient intervention that builds on the natural social dynamics existing between younger and older children. It uses very low-cost, peer-led learning initiatives and engages family members and community leaders. The programme aims to help preschoolers gain linguistic, social and emotional tools for successful learning and make a smooth transition to school. The evaluation of the first year of the pilot supported what our field visits had already demonstrated – children involved in the programme are much more likely to enrol in school at the prescribed age and are better prepared as they start school.
The final countdown
We are now entering the final countdown to the 2015 deadline for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Early childhood care and education directly supports MDG 2 of universal primary education by helping children, both boys and girls, get into school on time and by providing them with the basic skills not only to perform better in school but also to complete school once there.
Additionally, positive early gender socialization contributes to MDG 3 – the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment. ECCE programmes indirectly contribute to the other MDGs as well by supporting the growth of healthier and more engaged adults and communities.
Given the current environment of less funding and competing financial pressures, we must work together as a global community to make certain that early childhood care and education are at the forefront of education and child-survival discussions and that global commitments to the right to education for every child, including early learning and development, are realized to provide a more equitable, safer and prosperous world for all.
This blog entry is written on the occasion of the Global Action Week, which runs from the 23rd – 27th of April and this year’s theme is ‘Early Childhood Care and Education‘
 Arnold, C., ‘Young Children’s Education: A key route to equity’, UNICEF Education and Equity Meeting, 5–7 September 2011, New York.
 Murtagh, H., ‘Economist: A successful child needs investment’, The Daily Journal, 9 March 2012.