Every child has the right to start school at the right age
While more children in the region have access to preschool programmes today than in 1990, 24 per cent of children do not attend preschool, which limits their readiness to learn and progress in primary and secondary school, while increasing their chances of dropping out.
Meanwhile, children from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged households, who would benefit the most, are the least likely to have access, as this is heavily influenced by family characteristics, such as wealth and geographic location. The quality of pre-primary schooling also remains a challenge: policy-makers continue to face challenges in providing, and regulating the quality of, essential components of early learning services, such as teacher professionalism, use of active learning pedagogies, parental involvement and linkages with health care and social protection systems.
The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed additional challenges to countries in the East Asia and Pacific region such as disruptions to education systems and for the youngest children, disruptions in childcare and early learning services that are essential to their optimal development. Since the pandemic was first reported in January 2020, COVID-19 rapidly spread to all countries in the region. Throughout 2021, the region experienced sharp spikes in cases caused by the spread of highly contagious variants such as Delta and low vaccination rates, which led to further disruption in children’s lives and learning opportunities.
In the East Asia and the Pacific region, while most countries have prioritized the return of older children to school, especially those taking examinations, young children who would most benefit from face-to-face interaction and learning have been kept out. For primary education, schools have closed in varying duration ranging from one month to close to 20 months in the Philippines. Services supporting the development of young children have suffered more than other education levels, as they remain closed for fear of children contracting COVID-19 and to reduce community transmission. These disruptions meant that young children have been deprived of face-to-face interactions, stimulation, and learning for significant periods of time.
Through its impact on extended school closures, the pandemic has caused disruptions to life-saving health and nutrition services, early intervention on children with developmental delays and disabilities, early detection, and timely referrals on maltreatment of young children, as well as the operation of preschools and childcare centres affecting early learning opportunities. In particular, the increase in enrollment in early childhood development services over recent years may well be reversed as many community-based childcare programmes are forced to close due to public health measures or financial constraints. The pandemic threatens to disrupt the early childhood development workforce in the long run, as staff without salaries might leave the profession entirely. Furthermore, the economic fallout of the pandemic exacerbates unemployment and poverty, resulting in stress among parents and caregivers, increased needs for parenting and family support and less resources available to support children’s development.
Lack of access to quality pre-primary education is the starting point of educational inequities that are likely to affect children from poor and disadvantaged families throughout their schooling.
Early childhood presents an incomparable window of opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life.
Access to quality care and education programmes outside the home provides children with the basic cognitive and language skills they need to flourish in school.
Such programmes can also help foster social competency and emotional development.
In fact, it is widely recognized that early childhood care and education form the foundation of a high-quality basic education.
The impacts of early childhood care and education are felt well beyond primary school to resound throughout the life course.
Early childhood education (ECE) can reduce gaps that often put children with low social and economic status at a disadvantage. The returns on investments are highest among poorer children, serving as a steppingstone out of poverty or exclusion.
ECE is linked with early childhood development (ECD), which combines education, health care, nutrition, protection and cognitive stimulation to help children aged up to eight years achieve their full potential. High-quality ECD is associated with high returns in brain development, learning, and social, emotional and economic outcomes.
In East Asia and the Pacific, data from the education sector show that high quality preschool education and learning opportunities increase the likelihood of children completing primary education.