Early childhood education is the education that children receive before they attend primary school. In many countries, this is a norm that assured through public policy and public funding so that all children have access to quality early childhood education.
Intuitively, public early childhood education makes sense on many levels. On an individual level, we know that it is in the early years that a child’s brain grows (estimates indicate that 75% of brain growth is completed in these early years) which is critical to their emotional, motor, and intellectual development. At a societal level, we know that a knowledge era requires knowledge workers for economic development and prosperity. In fact, the rationale for public support of early childhood education is tied directly to the economic development and prosperity of a nation or region.
Evidence has been accumulating for decades on the return on investment (ROI) of early childhood education. One of the most striking graphs supporting this approach to development is the graph below from Nobel Laureate Heckman who argues that investments in children bring a higher rate of return than investments in low-skill adults.
The international evidence that we have on the ROI for early childhood education contrasts the reality of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) where the highest youth population exists globally. According to Therese Cregan, education programme coordinator at the UNESCO in Beirut, Lebanon, this is a “region where enrolment in pre-primary education, averaging 19%, remains well below the 41% world average.”
Indeed, last year UNESCO released a report on early childhood education in the Arab world presenting the variability of access to early childhood education. Although there was an improvement from a 15% enrollment in 1999 to a 19% enrollment in 2007, it is noteworthy that most programs are in cities and are in the for-profit private sector. This situation leaves room for lots of improvement in terms of national and regional development that is inclusive of rural areas and families with lower incomes who represent the majority in many Arab countries.
It is hard to find arguments against the public institutionalization of early childhood education in the Arab world. However, current investments appear to be reactive in an attempt to handle a situation with a large population of youth who are seeking employment. Interestingly, the link between the systematization of early childhood education and youth employment has not been highlighted as it has been in the US.
Specifically, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology held a conference on “The Economic Impacts of Child Care and Early Education” in 2004 and concluded that there were short and long term economic benefits to quality early childhood education including:
SHORT TERM BENEFITS
- Providing jobs for unemployed educated people
- Employees spend their wages
- Centers purchase goods and services
LONG TERM BENEFITS
- Lower costly remedial education
- Better job preparedness and ability to meet future labor force demands
- Lower criminal justice and prison costs
- Fewer welfare payments
The evidence is mounting and highlights the questions:
Why isn’t the MENA region working to integrate early childhood education as part of the education setor?
What are the obstacles to early childhood education in MENA? What can be done to help?