Youngest minds need the best care

By Anaïs Loizillon, researcher, Education for All Global Monitoring Report

When world leaders met in New York last week to reaffirm their commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, the United Nations launched its new Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. The strategy aims to save the lives of more than 16 million women and children by scaling up health services for the poor.

The renewed focus on health is a great initiative, but for the youngest children, especially, it is not enough on its own. Early childhood policies need a holistic approach to improve not only children’s physical health, nutrition and well-being, but also their psychosocial and cognitive development.

This week, some of the same world leaders will gather in Moscow at the World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education. They should seize the opportunity to reaffirm the rights of the very young – especially those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged – to integrated care and education that gives them every chance of leading successful, fulfilling lives.

The years before children enter primary school are vital to the rest of human development for many reasons. Recent scientific research shows that the first three to five years of life are crucial for brain development.

Healthy children are more likely to enter school on time and complete primary education. Educated children, in turn, are not only less likely to be poor and sick, but also more likely as adults to make better decisions for their own children (especially girls), who will pass on the benefits of this virtuous circle.

Mothers’ health and education are critical, in fact, for shaping a child’s future health and cognitive development. A recent article in the British medical journal The Lancet showed that nearly 2 million deaths of children under 5 were averted in 2009 because of increases in the number of years mothers had spent in school.

Investing in holistic early childhood policies is especially important for marginalized and disadvantaged children – who are all too often the last to receive any early childhood care. Yet despite the establishment in 2000 of the Education for All goals, which include expanding early childhood care and education, too few young children have access to safe learning. Political commitment to early childhood care has increased in the past 10 years, but governments and donors continue to focus on primary schooling at the expense of pre-primary education (see figure below).

Policymakers often seek to explain the poor state of early childhood care by pointing to the scarcity of resources and the prioritization of basic education – but ignoring the importance of early childhood only makes it harder to meet the other Education for All goals. Children who enter primary school unprepared or in poor health increase the strains on the education system, because of increased absences, repetition and dropout.

There is plenty of evidence that the future of development depends on the international community’s willingness to focus on the youngest children and their mothers. Starting with the Moscow conference this week, let’s hope that both governments and donors significantly increase their political and financial commitment to this critical policy area – not just for the sake of achieving the millennium goals, but for the sake of children worldwide.


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