Anyone who has been anywhere near a three-year-old recently will attest to their inexhaustible curiosity. They ask as many as 100 questions an hour – and around about the age of three, those questions switch from “what and where” to “how and why” questions – in a search for meaning in the world around them.
Early childhood is the optimum time for cognitive and sensory development and the years from three to five are when the executive function, also known as the human ‘air traffic control system’, is growing most actively.
Thus, the way parents, peers and the wider society responds to a three-year-old’s searching questions will be a major determinant of his or her education and life success, as well as their long-time contribution to economic, social and democratic development of their society.
This is why Nobel Prize winner, and one of the world’s leading economist, James Heckman calculated that the biggest return on investment from the public purse occurs in the earliest years of childhood.
Recent research has dramatically expanded our understanding of early childhood development and much of this new knowledge was sorely missing when the current education model of most countries was designed in the 19th century.
But today the disparity between those who don’t go to pre-school and those who do, seems clear. There is, for example, a correlation in mathematics outcomes for 15-year-olds who did not go to preschool being a year behind, among the 55 countries included in the OECD/UNESCO PISA study.
Thus in the last few decades there has been a huge drive in the world’s wealthiest countries to secure a pre-school place for every child. In the European Union, for example, the pre-school coverage rate is around 92% with a target of 95% coverage by 2020. Some countries such as Ireland and Latvia have had rapid growth in the past few years.
But what about low- and middle-income countries? In the draft United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, universal access to pre-school is set as a target for 2030. But there is a long way to go.
In the Central and Eastern European & Central Asia region – much of which borders the EU and is working towards integration with the EU economy – some countries have a coverage rate as low as 10%, much lower than the EU target of 95%. Here in Montenegro there is 52% enrolment of three- to six-year-olds in pre-school, but only 40% attend in real terms.
There is indeed a gulf between Montenegro and the European Union – which it eventually hopes to join. But there is also a geographical gulf and a poverty gap because a child born into the poorest section of society or the least developed municipality is nine times less likely to attend pre-school than one born in a wealthy family or municipality.
As in many countries, there are three drivers of poor attendance. The first is a lingering belief that pre-school is primarily for the purpose of daycare – not child development – and that this can be better provided at home by the extended family. There is a lack of understanding of the unique value of a professional and evidence-based pedagogical learning programme for the child.
The second is poverty and the inability to pay even relatively low fees for the service. This is coupled with the non-income dimensions of poverty such as the absence of a means of transport from often disparate rural locations to pre-schools in urban regional centres.
The third is the evolution of pre-school as a largely urban phenomenon for working families, which combine the functions of paedagogical development of children with daycare facilities such as kitchens, dining rooms and sleeping facilities where a child may stay all day, but where only 40% of the space and time is used for child development and where the investment and running costs can by disproportionately high.
The government of Montenegro has committed to increasing the enrolment of children in pre-school from 52% to 95% by 2020 with the technical support of UNICEF, through the establishment of a free-of-charge three-hour daily programme for all children, focusing on the poorest first. This will be achieved through innovative financing models and the establishment of pre-school facilities in primary schools, health posts, and other grassroots facilities in the disparate areas that are not covered by the current urban kindergartens. Shifts will also be developed in existing kindergartens to accommodate children during the afternoons for the three-hour programme.
Montenegro also joins Chile and South Africa as one of the three countries where UNICEF is working in partnership with the H&M Conscious Foundation to encourage an increased investment in ECD.
In addition, a public awareness campaign is underway to increase demand in areas where it is low. If such models can be replicated and mainstreamed through the aspiration for the sustainable development goals of the United Nations, we have a chance of reversing both the impact of inter-generational inequity between low- and high-coverage countries; the massive disparities between wealthy and poor children within countries like Montenegro; and the lost opportunities for all societies through a collective failure to respond to our latest knowledge on the essential need for early development of the brain when it is growing most rapidly.
Benjamin Perks is the UNICEF Representative in Montenegro