Countries should spend 10% of education budgets on pre-primary says UNICEF

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Pre-primary learning is vital for children to grow and develop (UNICEF / Jacome)

Child nutrition (Early years), Childcare, Early childhood development, Education funding, ​Learning through play (Early years), Theirworld, United Nations General Assembly

A major report on early childhood development has echoed calls by Theirworld to invest in children's preschool education.

Countries around the world are beginning to wake up to the importance of early childhood development.

But far more needs to be done if every child – especially those from the most disadvantaged communities – is to fulfil their potential.

Theirworld last week called for countries to give 10% of their education budgets to preschool children.

Now a major report from the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF has echoed that call. Launched at the UN General Assembly in New York today, it urges governments and partners to invest urgently in services that give young children the best start in life.

That includes:

  • Devoting 10% of all national education budgets to pre-primary, saying this “will greatly expand the number of children with access to early learning opportunities”
  • All countries providing two years of free pre-primary education for every child – a key recommendation from the influential Education Commission
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(UNICEF / Ohanesian)

“What’s the most important thing children have? It’s their brains,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake as he launched the Early Moments Matter for Every Child report. 

“But we are not caring for children’s brains the way we care for their bodies – especially in early childhood, when the science shows that children’s brains and children’s futures are rapidly being shaped.

“We need to do more to give parents and caregivers of young children the support they need during this most critical period of brain development.”

90% of brain development happens in the first five years of a child’s life. That’s why nurturing early years care is crucial and why Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign has been calling for investment in early childhood development and the five key areas of nutrition, protection, play, health and learning.

Ben Hewitt, Theirworld’s Director of Campaigns, said: “Despite all the evidence that pre-primary education is vital, millions of children are continuing to miss out on the chance of a great start in life. 

“Access to pre-primary education continues to be a lottery, dependent upon where a child is born. It is time for governments and the international community to back up their words with actions. 

“They say early child care and education is important – but now they need to prioritise pre-primary in their education policies and allocate 10% of their education resources to get every child in every country into free, quality pre-primary education.”

UNICEF’s report looked at three basic national policies that it said help to guarantee the time and resources parents need to support their young children’s healthy brain development.

They are two years of free pre-primary education, paid breastfeeding breaks during the first six months of a child’s life and six months of paid maternity and four weeks of paid paternity leave.

Only 15 countries worldwide have those three basic policies in place – including Cuba, France, Portugal, Russia and Sweden.

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Neural connections occur at lightning speed in the first years of a child’s life (Carlos Martinez)

And 32 nations, which are home to one in eight of the world’s children under five, have NONE. 40% of those 85 million children live in two countries – Bangladesh and the United States.UNICEF said most of the children who miss out on early childhood come from the world’s most deprived communities. 

In low and middle-income countries, an estimated 43% of children under the age of five are at risk of poor development due to extreme poverty and stunted growth.

The report said one in four children between two and four in 64 countries do not take part in activities essential for brain development such as playing, reading and singing.

Lake said: “If we don’t invest now in the most vulnerable children and families, we will continue to perpetuate intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and inequality. 

“Life by life, missed opportunity by missed opportunity, we are increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots and undermining our long-term strength and stability.”

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