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New horizons for Turkey’s disadvantaged 0-6 year-olds

© UNICEF Turkey / 2010

October 2010 - A renewed drive is under way to expand Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes in Turkey following a two-day international conference organised jointly by UNICEF and the World Bank.

The conference came to an end on October 13, but workshops and consultations are continuing with a view to putting its recommendations into practice.

“All the evidence shows that policies for the development of children aged 0-6 are the best investment in the human capital needed for economic growth,” Kirsi Madi, UNICEF deputy director for the CEE/CIS region, declared in a key-note speech. She went on to explain the long-term benefits of care and stimulation in the early years of life for a child’s physical well-being, educational success and social behaviour. She also described ECD as a “key entry point to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and inequality.”

“We use the word ‘Investment’ deliberately,” Ms Madi went on, “ECD should be top of the priorities of any government… This is not only about investing in the early years but about providing equal opportunities for all children… especially the most disadvantaged.”

Turkey is a middle-income country but there are wide disparities between different regions and social groups, and between girls and boys. Analysis carried out by the World Bank has shown that children from poor backgrounds with uneducated parents are far more likely than other children to be stunted, to discontinue their education at an early age and to end up in low income groups. 

Cooperating ministers

Jesko Hentschel, World Bank sector manager for Europe and Central Asia,  suggested that Turkey can learn from OECD countries which “have come to the conclusion that what works best is if they reach the poorest children as early as possible within a holistic approach with long-term, high-quality, high-impact interventions”. As challenges, he listed finance, integration across ministries and agencies, and the need to find ways of combining public policy with community participation. The presence at the Conference of both Minister of Health Recep Akdağ and Minister of National Education Nimet Çubukçu was a sign of the growing cooperation for ECD within the government.

“We are committed to mothers and children. This is our duty - our security for the future. We have to work a bit harder on the ECD age group. We have to educate our parents and professionals very well,” said Mr Akdağ, emphasising a need for more child psychologists.

"Success in this area will prevent low performance in education, drop-outs, health problems and the number of children coming into contact with the law,” asserted Ms Çubukçu. “We have started change, but we must amend any system which leaves even one child behind,” she added.

The key note speaker, Prof. Dr. Ilgi Ertem, professor of pediatrics at Ankara University and current advisor to UNICEF and the WHO on child development elaborated on the  Importance of Early Childhood Development Across the Life Span and  urged to up-date the research, services and policies, according to the new ECD evidence-based bioecological approach,  She also stressed the need to ensure the continuity between the primary health care and hospital care in what concerns the delivery of ECD services – as well as the continuity between the health and education services.

Community-based approaches

Conference participants also included officials from the State Planning Organisation and the health and education ministries, international experts from as far away as Brazil, Chile, Russia and Poland, academics from a wide range of disciplines, and representatives of municipalities and non-government organizations which provide community-based services for poor families.

Several speakers described the ECD programmes and services already available in Turkey including parenting education, the integration of early childhood care into the new family medicine system, and the ongoing expansion of preschool education. UNICEF has been closely involved in the development of many of these programmes. It is currently supporting an EU-backed project which will develop standards and a framework for community-based preschool services, in order to reach the children most in need.

Emiliana Vegas, a senior education economist at the World Bank, described Turkey’s ECD system as “established”, but called for a rapid expansion of coverage. Deepa Grover, UNICEF’s regional advisor on ECD, emphasised that “the composite of early childhood health, education and protection services duly delivered can buffer the most disadvantaged and marginalized children from the risks posed by their environments...  In Turkey we need to see a dramatic increase of early education provision.” Community-based approaches might offer a way forward, she suggested.

Starting at minus one

Several participants drew attention to the importance of targeting not only children but also the care-givers – usually mothers. Another common theme was the importance of preparing young people for parenthood and caring for the child from the moment of conception onwards. Dr. Cevdet Erdöl, who chairs the Child Rights Monitoring Committee of the Turkish Parliament, and who made the closing speech at the conference, had the last word in this respect too. Instead of talking about the “zero-to-six” cohort, he proposed, why not  talk about the “minus one-to-six” age group.



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