Five obstacles to quality early learning
Quality early learning is now firmly embedded in the United Nations new Sustainable Development Goals. But, a goal is not a plan and a plan needs to address the obstacles to this huge opportunity. We have defined five issues that needs urgent attention.
We start 2016 with quality early learning firmly embedded in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). The global community has committed by 2030, to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education. This goal of ensuring that all children start life with the foundations and trajectory for success in life, will literally change the world. But, a goal is not the same as a plan – and so it's essential that we work out how to address the obstacles to this huge opportunity. Here are five that need urgent attention:
Governments must focus on ‘access to quality’, not just ‘access’
There is a massive and welcome global drive to invest in the early years (further promoted by SDG 4.2) but too often the focus is just on ‘access’, rather than 'access to quality'. The evidence base on which this SDG is justified, is drawn from very high quality early learning examples like Perry Pre-School. (The Perry Preschool Project, carried out from 1962 to 1967, provided high-quality preschool education to three- and four-year-old African-American children living in poverty and assessed to be at high risk of school failure). The issue is that the new government supported interventions must be of good quality to deliver similar results. If they are not, disillusionment with the promise of early learning will quickly lead to reduced funding and focus. We know that play-based early learning can deliver both access and quality – so we need to remind governments of this message at every opportunity.
Premature schoolification is not quality
A consequence of this lack of focus on quality is a process we call “premature schoolification”. Interventions tend to push down poor primary pedagogy and academic content (“more, earlier”), contrary to the evidence base which shows that the development of executive functioning skills, language, and self-regulation, etc. have life-long benefits, and are important pre-requisites (not to be skipped over) for later academic learning. Play-based early learning is the best way to develop these skills. (Watch how children, researchers and teachers engage in building children's writing skills through learning through play playful writing. A University of Cambridge and the LEGO Foundation research project)
Learning starts at birth, not at school
Most babies and young children spend an absolute minority of their time in formal early childhood centres and pre-school. Evidence shows that the ‘early stimulation’ (from birth) that children receive at home and in the community has a huge impact on their future life. The importance of “loving, playing and talking” with children, even those who can’t yet talk back, cannot be overstated. We need to empower millions of parents/carers and change the focus of governments to include the earliest years and “informal learning” in their understanding of quality early learning. (Watch this compelling video about Lively Minds, founded by Alison Naftalin, a British Government Lawyer, in 2008. Lively Minds is working to empower mothers and their children, in rural Ghana and Uganda, through creative early years development programmes)
A quality workforce is essential for quality early learning
We are trying to deliver quality early learning with an under-paid, under-respected, under-trained workforce of people often thought of as “child-minders”. We need the early childhood workforce to have similar skills and professional respect as the teacher workforce if we’re going to be able to deliver quality early learning at scale.
We need more research on scaling quality in low resource environments
Most of the quality interventions on which the case for early years investment is made come from high resource environments, have not been scaled, and/or have insufficient longitudinal follow-up. We need far more well-researched case studies to help shift the agenda towards quality with a much improved understanding of what works when, where, why, and for whom.
These five issues are deeply interconnected and overcoming them is going to require determination, funding and focus. Remember, 2030 is only 14 years away - and the prize is enormous.
Certainly, there are more obstacles. But can we find solutions to the five above, we have a path for: “Ensuring equitable and quality education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes”. (SGD 4).
Global Head of Research and Learning