What you need to know about early childhood care and education

Last update: 9 June 2022

Why is early childhood care and education so important?  

Early childhood care and education (ECCE), which addresses the period from birth to 8 years old, is important because it capitalizes on a period of rich brain development for children and, when it is of good quality, can help them achieve their full potential. It can lay the foundation for good health and nutrition, learning and educational success, social-emotional learning, and economic productivity throughout life. Despite the evidence for these social, human and economic developmental gains, it is still often given low priority in education policy and investment and, where it does exist, may exclude marginalized groups. ECCE has its own extra vulnerability in that much of it is privately provided. 

What is the global situation for ECCE? 

As a snapshot of disparity, worldwide 75% of children were enrolled in pre-primary education one year before the official primary entry age in the school year ending in 2019, but in sub-Saharan Africa and in Northern Africa and Western Asia the rate was about 50% (GEM report 2021).

In times of crisis the closure of schools and other institutions that provide social protection, health, nutrition, learning and socio-emotional nurturing to young children represents an immense threat to their development potential. ECCE was already a ‘blind spot’ in many countries before the COVID-19 pandemic and for that reason was made a part of the #Save Our Future campaign launched by UNESCO and partner organizations to protect and prioritize education as the key to recovery and the best investment for the future.  

Although some countries took measures to support families, caregivers and children, such as financial support, psychological counselling, and emergency childcare services for frontline volunteers, pre-primary education was relatively neglected compared to other levels of education. 

A UNESCO COVID-19 Education webinar, organized in 2020, under the patronage of Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development, focused on the importance of ECCE to ensure learning and wellbeing of young children, especially the vulnerable, when educational and care services are disrupted. 

What is the basis for UNESCO’s approach to this work? 

UNESCO regards ECCE as a fundamental and integral part of the education system and a solid foundation on which to build lifelong education, lives and careers. All of its work in this area is aligned with target 4.2 of Sustainable Development Goal 4 which aims to ‘By 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.’ To further advance this target, UNESCO established a new Global Partnership Strategy to bridge the gap and ensure that quality ECCE, early primary school years, and family education, are available for all children.  

UNESCO’s work is based on the idea that ‘Learning begins at birth’ introduced into the World Declaration on Education for All Jomtien declaration. As inscribed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), young children have the right not only to survive but to thrive and develop to their fullest potential. In 2000 the international community at the World Education Forum (Dakar 2000) committed itself to ‘expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.’ Ten years later, UNESCO’s World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education (Moscow 2010) warned that the EFA Goal on ECCE was ‘at great risk of not being achieved by 2015 unless urgent and resolute action is taken’ and highlighted ECCE as a social, human and economic development imperative. 

The SDG4 - Education 2030 agenda marked the first global commitment to ECCE beyond the education community and was followed by other international and regional initiatives and statements. 

How does UNESCO work to promote ECCE? 

UNESCO collaborates with governments and other key stakeholders concerned with the care and education of young children from birth until primary school entry. Its ECCE activities focus on promoting holistic and quality pre-primary education for all children over the age of 3, ensuring the use of developmentally appropriate pedagogies and emphasizing the links with primary education as well as early childhood health, nutrition and social services.  

Concretely it works with Member States at national, regional and international levels by influencing policies and practices through evidence-based advocacy, knowledge generation and sharing, partnership-building, capacity-building and technical assistance. These include work in teacher development through projects like STEPP (The Survey of Teachers in Pre-Primary Education), parenting education and family literacy, and measurement and monitoring. See Resources on ECCE

UNESCO promotes the integration of an ECCE component in countries’ education sector plans to address the needs of different age groups and includes the marginalized. Partnerships that involve working with health, nutrition and social sectors as well as civil society and private sector actors help widen the reach to children.