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Regional Forum Makes the Case for Early Childhood Education in South Asia

© Ministry of Education Youth and Sports,Department of Early Childhood Education,Cambodia

 28-29 April 2008, Bangkok, Thailand

"Expanding and improving early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged" is the first of the six goals of the Dakar Framework for Action on Education for All (EFA).

The goal refers to the period of a child's life from conception to early primary school years (age six to eight) and constitutes multiple dimensions of development of the child, such as health, nutrition and psycho-social stimulation. 

 

It is the period that is most critical in the formation of intelligence, personality, and social behaviour of the child. Extensive scientific research today has shown that early neglect can be cumulative and have a life-long detrimental effect on the child's development.


Enough data exists to show that children who have access to ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education) are more likely to enrol and remain in school, learn effectively and perform well.  As such, ECCE was also recognised as a requisite in achieving the other Education for All goals.


Since the Dakar Framework for Action on Education for All was agreed in 2000, several countries in the Asia-Pacific region took important steps towards meeting the ECCE goal. Many indicators for children and women have improved and had a direct impact on early childhood development.
 

However, conditions between countries and regions inside countries vary. For example, there is still an urban bias in ECCE programming and with the diversity of the Asia-Pacific region, some countries have made great progress, while others are much further from reaching the EFA goal.


In fact, ECCE has been one of the most neglected of all the six EFA goals, or if not, it has been the most difficult goal to measure and achieve. The main reason for this is that early childhood care and education is often not the sole responsibility of ministries of education, and therefore, not compulsory like primary education.


A major breakthrough was marked by the Global Monitoring Report (GMR) 2007, which focused on this first goal of EFA and created global momentum for the promotion of ECCE.


The GMR provided strong evidence to convince policy-makers of the importance of expanding ECCE to facilitate efforts towards achieving the first goal of EFA.


Meanwhile, the EFA Mid-Decade Assessment revealed ECCE, despite being the first goal of EFA, was still not given deserved priority, and many countries are still far from achieving the goal.


One of the challenges identified in effectively promoting ECCE was a lack of awareness and understanding on the importance of ECCE among policy makers, society and even among parents.


Taking advantage of the global momentum created by GMR 2007 and aware of the challenges, UNESCO Bangkok, the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia and Save the Children in South Asia organised a two-day "Regional Forum on Making the Case for Early Childhood in South Asia" from 28 to 29 April 2008 in Bangkok, Thailand.


The Forum brought together 80 participants from the eight SAARC member countries, namely, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Each country formed a country team consisting of senior policy makers and technical officers from relevant ministries and practitioners from local NGOs, together with staff from the country offices of UNESCO, UNICEF, and Save the Children. International and regional early childhood experts were invited as plenary speakers. The keynote speech, delivered by Dr. Nirmala Rao of Hong Kong University, highlighted key issues in early childhood in South Asia from both human and national development perspectives.


The main objective of the Regional Forum was to provide a strong advocacy opportunity to influence senior policy makers by making a case for ECCE in South Asian countries based on scientific, economic, educational and social and community development evidence in support of investing in ECCE/ECD.


The Regional Forum was also expected to prepare the ground, with stronger and clearer political support, for conducting policy reviews and thematic research studies on policy-related issues, which eventually could be used for influencing policy change towards ECCE.


The two-day advocacy event consisted of a series of plenary sessions and parallel group sessions to share country policies and good practices from the ground. All the presentations and discussions recognised the multi-dimensionality of ECCE and highlighted the importance of taking a holistic approach based on the principles of human rights.  


The meeting unanimously recognised that the survival and development of young children depends upon not only availability and access to quality early childhood services, but also on strong policies and resources to support these services.

The highlight of the event was the sharing of the "Commitment to Action" at the end of the Forum, which was prepared by each country team based on the discussions.


The Commitment to Action contained two key advocacy messages and a "Three-step strategy" to make the case for early childhood in their respective countries.


"Setting up a national coordination mechanism to realise a holistic policy and provisions for early childhood", "ensuring quality early childhood provision through the development of quality standards and appropriate monitoring of provisions" and "launching strong advocacy for early childhood", etc. were some of the key commitment statements made by the countries.


This "Commitment to Action" forms the basis for the collective momentum that has been created.