Members of parliament agree that universal coverage of children by preschool education is possible in Serbia
Belgrade, 9 April 2013 – Serbia has one of the lowest rates of participation in the preschool education in Europe – 44%, compared to 85% in EU member countries. The participation of children from ethnic minorities, children living in poverty, and children with disabilities is even lower – only 8% of Roma children, 22% of children from the poorest families and 29% of children from rural areas.
In cooperation with UNICEF, the Committee for the Rights of the Child of the Serbian National Assembly organised a public hearing today on the importance of investing in early childhood education. This was attended by representatives of several parliamentary Committees, and representatives of the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technological Development, UNICEF, preschool institutions from various parts of Serbia, civil society, and academic institutions.
“The function of the Committee for the Rights of the Child is to make sure that the laws recognising the best interest of every child are adopted. It is equally important, however, that we monitor the manner in which such laws are being implemented in practice, and request that more attention be paid to resolving issues which have negative effects on children, i.e. that new solutions be adopted which make it possible for no child to be left behind or marginalised. One of the mechanisms we have at our disposal is a public hearing“, said MP Ljiljana Lucic, deputy chairperson of the Committee for the Rights of the Child.
Addressing the meeting, Minister of Education, Science, and Technological Development Zarko Obradovic said: “Serbia has a long tradition of preschool education and a widespread network of preschool institutions. We have a good Law on Preschool Education, and one of the priorities of the Strategy for the Development of Education in the Republic of Serbia by 2020 is the promotion of concepts of early childhood development and learning. However, although the rate of coverage of children aged 3 to 5.5 by preschool programmes is on the increase, more than half of children of this age still do not attend early childhood development programmes.”
The results of the study Investing in Early Childhood Education in Serbia – Costing Models for Universal Coverage of Preschool Education, which is the outcome of cooperation between UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technological Development, were presented at the public hearing .
The study has shown that preschool education services are not being used by those who need it the most, that the current network of preschool institutions is inadequate in terms of geographic
coverage and physical capacity, and that local authorities are bearing 80% of preschool education costs. The study presents evidence that the introduction of universal coverage by preschool education through 3 to 4-hour programmes is financially feasible and cost-effective:
The 3 to 4-hour programmes should be free of charge and available to all children aged 3 to 5.5. The gradual introduction of these programmes, first for children aged 4 to 5.5 and then for 3-year-olds, would decrease the pressure both on physical capacities for preschool education and the additional funds needed.
As there is no real difference in developmental outcomes between full-day and shorter programmes, and as the costs of shorter-day programmes are significantly lower, 3 to 4-hour programmes have the most favourable cost-benefit ratio.
The cost of 3 to 4-hour free-of-charge programmes for all children aged 3 to 5.5 amounts to around 60% of the current funds provided by local budgets for preschool education.
“Since early childhood education has such a powerful influence on children and brings such exceptionally great benefit to society as a whole, it should be recognised as a programme of interest at state level. In today’s Serbia, however, the entire responsibility for financing preschool education falls on local authorities and parents. And since the great differences in the level of municipal development are not a good starting point for providing equal opportunities to every child, it is absolutely necessary to create a better formula for financing and co-financing preschool education“, pointed out Judita Reichenberg, UNICEF Area Representative in Serbia.
Members of Parliament and those attending the public hearing agreed that it is necessary to take the following measures in order to achieve universal coverage of children aged 3 to 5.5 by preschool education:
Given its importance, overall benefits to the state and high rates of return on investment, preschool education should not solely be the responsibility of municipalities and parents.
Republican Government should intervene and support underdeveloped municipalities to reach higher preschool education coverage rates, with the possibility of extending this support to all municipalities in the future.
The possibility of making use of existing municipal premises and leveraging partnerships with donors, the private sector and other stakeholders interested should be explored.
Negative demographic trends have been a key driver in increased rates of preschool education coverage in Serbia,but they have alone been insufficient to increase coverage rates up to the desired national targets. Therefore, these trends should be further analysed to determine the extent to which further decreases in the numbers of children will free primary school capacities and leave space for their utilization for preschool programmes.
The Committee for the Rights of the Child will submit the conclusions and recommendations to the responsible ministries and monitor their implementation.
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