Invest in young children to build a stronger society

Friday April 27 2012

By Kathy Bartlett

Many of us have heard the saying: “It takes a whole village to raise a child” – but what does this mean for us all today? The message is a simple one. For children to grow up healthy, confident, well-nourished and loved, with social skills, cultural values, and a curiosity and enthusiasm for learning – we need to actively involve a range of actors.

Parents and other caregivers play a central and lasting role. Looking at simple storybooks, for example, is one of the most important things they can do with young children – from the time they are babies – that will help them years later in school. These activities at home can also be complemented and boosted by wider circles of care and support from extended families and local communities, as well as from government services and civil society organizations.

There is overwhelming evidence – including analysis by the Nobel Laureate James Heckman – that programmes focused on the holistic development of very young children are one of the most cost-effective investments for governments and societies. These returns range from $ 4 to $ 9 for every $1 dollar spent resulting in gains in education, reduction in healthcare costs, labour force improvements, among other factors. However, in spite of this, thousands of children in Uganda still lack adequate supports at home and in the community. For example, there has been a wide gap between the pre-school enrollment and the population aged 3-5 years. In 2011, only 508,617 children out of a total population of 3,887522 children between 3-5 years were enrolled in Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres thus leaving many at risk of not reaching their full potential. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the overall enrollment for ECD programmes is around 14 per cent which means that 86 per cent of all children do not have access to ECD programmes that help them have a better start in life (Unesco Global Monitoring Report, 2009).
Governments across the region as well as civil society organisations and other development partners are increasing efforts to address this situation. One example is the Aga Khan Foundation’s Madrasa Early Childhood Programme. Over the years, it has provided quality pre-school services – both affordable and rooted in local culture– to more than 20,000 children from over 200 low-income communities in the region. Evaluations of the programme have shown clear benefits for the children, including their social and cognitive development and overall readiness for school. In Uganda, a follow-up study showed that children in Grade One who went to pre-school repeated the first year of primary at half the rate of children with no pre-school experience, saving the education system and families from the additional costs of repetition.

What next?

Development partners have worked closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Education over the years to develop and refine critical pieces for an improved enabling environment for ECD in the country. This includes the creation and piloting of an ECD learning framework, guidelines for training within ECD and a pathway of accreditation for ECD workers functioning at different levels (childcare providers, pre-school teachers, ECD trainers, etc).

What is now urgently needed is increased funding from government, development partners and the private sector in order to catalyse further the interest and demand, especially from poorer communities and parents – most of whom are already trying their best. Specific designation in budgets across relevant ministries and from development partners could increase significantly financing for ECD. This could include, for example, additional budget allocation within the Ministry of Education to enable training and follow-up for a range of ECD workers and supervisors in order to support critical improvements in quality of ECD services and supports. Moreover, budget to integrate ECD activities within community health efforts – such as through the use of the Unicef/WHO Care for Child Development package would also provide the essential and earliest support to babies and their caregivers in homes. NGOs and others could pitch in to assist in the training and adaptation of ECD models across communities, or they could assist to set-up small libraries with children’s storybooks (in local languages) that could be made available to families and they could work with targeted communities to set up new ECD centres. If we are to tackle the unacceptable gap between the 14 per cent who access ECD and the 86 per cent who do not, then we all must do our part to act upon what we know works – this includes families, communities, governments, NGOs, international development partners.

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In Uganda today, Shs20m (around $ 8,000) can support some 30 children to access quality early learning for a whole year. $ 500 can help to set-up a mini-library in a community with children’s storybooks. The same amount can also help equip a community early childhood centre with learning materials, storybooks and simple toys that are critical for quality learning and development.

Ms Bartlett is the Co -Director, Aga Khan Foundation

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