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EFA partners give their views > Judith L. Evans
 Maris O. Rourke
 Angela W. Little
 Judith L. Evans
 Denise Lievesley
 Victor Ordonez
 Clinton Robinson
 O. J. Sikes

 

 
The challenges in early childhood education are enormous
By Judith L. Evans
 

  Should there be another decade devoted to Education for All? Probably not, unless some serious changes are made. For example, EFA needs to:

 
  Re-establish learning as the focus of EFA, not formal education.
  Embrace the learning that occurs outside the school -- at home, in the community, and for all ages.
 
  Develop realistic goals in terms of what can be achieved, and develop appropriate markers along the way to assess progress, including indicators for early childhood.
 
 
  The statement, Learning begins at birth, was written into the EFA Framework for Action because all children are born with the capacity to learn. The intent of this statement was to make people aware that "learning" is not the prerogative of schools, but that learning is a part of everyone's life, right from the beginning. So, if we want to really address how to develop support for learning, we need to move beyond the four walls of the classroom into the community. One of the groups that is within that community is children from birth up to the age of entry into school -- the early childhood period.
 
  While there has been a considerable growth in investment in early childhood care and development (ECCD) since the World Conference on EFA (i.e. over the past 10 years) it has now always been linked to EFA. Other events and trends have brought increased attention to the needs of young children and their families. These include the continuing drop in infant mortality and the need to attend to those who survive, the increasing involvement of women in the labour force, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Social Summit, and advocacy by the Consultative Group on Early Childhood Care and Development. As a result, early childhood may be the fastest growing sector within the field of 'education'. Evidence for this is in the types of early childhood programmes that have been funded by international agencies over the past ten years* . While many of those involved in the EFA alliance are in fact engaged in early childhood programming, in general it is not linked to EFA, but to other in-house initiatives within those organisations
 
  And while some governments in developing countries have indeed increased their contribution to early childhood programmes (usually through the introduction of pre-schools and/or kindergartens within the formal education sector) the level of investment ranges from only .01% of the education budget to a high of 10%. But do we really know how much the sector has grown? In the EFA 2000 Assessment, the indicators requested (there were only two) focus only on enrollment and say nothing about the quality of the system or about what has happened to children. Part of the problem is the focus on "growth" of systems, per se, and not on what is happening to children's learning and development. Furthermore, since the indicators rely on the primary education system as the point of reference, the full range of activities that occur within ECCD programmes is not reflected.
 
  In order to present a more valid picture of developments within the early childhood sector a separate study is being conducted by the Consultative Group on Early Childhood Care and Development that will take a more intensive look at the status of early education and development in six countries. What we expect to find is that access to early education is still skewed toward the middle class and urban areas and that the quality of ECCD programmes leaves much to be desired.
 
  The challenge is enormous because of the demographic pressures and increased poverty that most countries experience. Yet efficient and low-cost options for early childhood exist, and are adapted to the needs of children, the life conditions of families, the culture and resources. Their implementation depends more on creating adequate political and social will than any other factor.
 
  Overall, I think it is safe to say that within EFA there is a serious lack of recognition of the value and importance of early childhood initiatives. Thus if EFA is to meet its own goals, it needs to examine its commitment to the statement that learning begins at birth.
 
Judith L. Evans is Director in the Bernanrd van Leer Foundation and represents the Consultative Group on Early Childhood Care and Development on the Education for All Steering Committee, which she joined in 1997.
* For example, the World Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank international NGOs like the Save the Children Alliance, Christian Children's Fund, and foundations like the Aga Khan Foundation, and, of course, the Bernard van Leer Foundation. And new partners are increasing their investment (e.g., UNICEF, UNESCO and Plan International).
 
For more information on early childhood education, read the EFA 2000 Bulletin No. 28 (July-September 1997)
 
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