Changing Africa’s future by investing in our youth

The importance of early childhood education

In the last few years increased policy attention has been given towards ensuring young children get a good start in life. The next challenge is to scale up the quality of early childhood education for every child, especially for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable living in low-income countries.

Students at Mnyimbi TuTu Center in Zanzibar.<br>CREDIT: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

This is the 16th blog post in a series of collaborations between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE)

The early years of life are a time of immense hope and possibility for young children and their families and for nations as a whole.  Conversely it is also a time of particular risk for children living in the most adverse circumstances. The ever-evolving science of early development tells us that the brain of the infant is primed to develop faster in the first 1,000 days than at any other time during their lifetime. 

A combination of biological processes and early experiences influence this early development.  Giving every child a good start in life so that they thrive and reach their full potential depends on how their needs for nurturance, good nutrition, health care, opportunities to play and learn, and protection from violence are met right from the start. It follows that early adversities such as neglect, nutritional deficiencies, toxic stress like violence, conflict and poverty, can have long term consequences lasting over a lifespan.

How to scale up quality early childhood development services?

Enhancing the quality of young children’s lives has undoubtedly received increased policy attention over the last decades and early childhood development is now an international priority with its rightful place in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education and particularly in its target 4.2 as well as in the Africa’s Agenda 2063. 

The next challenge is the scaling up of quality Early Childhood Development (ECD) services for every child, a challenge even greater among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in low-income countries.

A broad range of actions is required – starting from the State’s commitment to increased and sustained public funding, building the system’s capacity to design coherent policies and programs that work synergistically with key actors to deliver integrated ECD services to monitoring and assessing progress during this critical age group of 0-8 years.

We have to face the stark reality that over 250 million children living in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) across the world face the challenges of surviving without the care they need when they are most vulnerable. As concerns Sub-Saharan Africa, 51.7% of our growing child population live in extreme poverty.  Children under five who are born in this region are at the highest risk globally of being stunted with little improvement in this statistic since 1990. For these young children, growing up without nurturing care damages the development of their bodies and their minds, the irreversible consequences of which will impact their chances of school success, lifelong learning, health and wellbeing. The incredible potential of every young child to grow and develop into caring, productive citizens, able to contribute to the wellbeing of their families and society, is lost through our failure to provide holistically for the needs of our children.  

Every child needs to have the best chance possible to achieve their potential and to contribute to the advancement of our continent. High-quality early childhood development programs can be a major contributor to this growth. Learning does not begin when children go to grade one, it starts with the developing brain, taking care of our youngest children; nurturing them holistically will ensure that they start school ready to learn and that schools are better able to be effective because of this. 

While enrollment rates in pre-primary education in Africa have improved, coverage is uneven, ranging from 19% for low-income countries to 86% for high-income countries, with highest enrollment among children from the highest wealth quintiles. 

It is little wonder that higher up the primary school grades, progress in reducing the out-of-school children population has slowed down since 2007 with over half of the world’s out-of-school children (33 million) living in Africa. Too many children who do start school fail to complete a full primary education and fail to master basic literacy and numeracy skills.  Children who enter the school system not ready to learn, often struggle to keep up and fall behind their more fortunate peers.

The key role of the ADEA’s ICQN on Early Childhood Development

The ADEA’s Inter-Country Quality Node on Early Childhood Development (ICQN-ECD), as an advocate for early childhood development on the African continent, is committed to advancing the rights of young children to care and services. Its approach relies on the networking of African institutions and experts for the emergence of a forum for capacity building, peer learning and pooling of successful experiences and best practices to support ECD policies.

Few countries have managed to develop a workforce of skilled and well-supported early childhood teachers and caregivers. On the African continent, the ECD workforce tends to be dominated by the least qualified, lowest status workers, despite the recognition that development during the early years is critical to lifelong learning and wellbeing. There is a convergence of thinking that such a workforce is pivotal to scaling up ECD initiatives. The ICQN-ECD, in collaboration with the Africa Early Childhood Network (AfECN), is working on this topic to be able to support countries in delivering high quality ECD programs.

We can make a difference in the lives of children right now. Investing in children’s early education and wellbeing is an investment that will change the future for our continent.