Education: from early childhood to adulthood

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- Eleonora Valentinovna, why is the UNESCO Worldwide Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education being held in Russia?

- Russia traditionally pays great attention to the issues of education. In 2006, when choosing priorities for the first in the history Russia’s chairmanship of the G8, the leadership of our country acted on the premise that the topics should be of practical significance for the whole world community. After extensive discussions, they became international energy security, the fight against infectious disease and education.

The importance, which is attached to this issue on a global scale, is understandable. Education is a continuous process that begins at birth and continues into old age. Each stage thereby carries important consequences for human life and society. That is why the global task of the XXI century in the field of education is the development of comprehensive systems of education throughout life: from early childhood to adulthood. The paramount goal at this stage is to provide generally accessible and high-quality preschool education.

In UNESCO education is one of the most important activities. Among our main priorities, I would mention the implementation of the Education for All (EFA) Programme for the period until 2015 and the achievement of Millennium Development Goals. The first objective of the EFA Programme is to expand and improve complex measures for young children care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Five Millennium Development Goals relating to health, nutrition and education of children are closely related to the EFA Programme.

Russia has certain serious groundwork in education, particularly, in regard to preschool children education. Moreover, our country is an active member of UNESCO, therefore we just can not stand on the sidelines. Taking into consideration the importance of this problem, we have submitted a draft resolution on the conduct of a Worldwide Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education in Moscow, which was adopted at the 35th session of the UNESCO General Conference.

- Why does preschool age play such an important role for further human progress?

- Infancy is the most sensitive period. It is characterized by rapid changes in the physical, linguistic, social and emotional development. Significant, I would even say, crucial brain development occurs before the child reaches the age of six or seven, and especially in the first three years of life, when the main neural connections are being formed (or not). At the same time, younger children are highly vulnerable. Inadequate care, privation, malnutrition, neglect and violence negatively affect the child and hurt him, and often irreversibly.

If preschool children care and education are organized competently, the child’s basic personal qualities are promptly formed (thinking, memory, attention, imagination and speech). It is them that allow the child to successfully learn, not only in elementary school, but also at subsequent stages of development. In other words, what we got at the pre-school age, has an impact on our future life.

- What problems, from Your point of view, exist in this area?

- There are many problems here. On the one hand, this is lack of attention to this issue at the political level. On the other, this is, of course, the financial and economic crisis, which still has a serious negative influence on national budgeting.

It is necessary to understand the main thing here: preschool education (from 0 to 6 years of age) is an essential condition of prosperity and wealth of nations. Among other things, it should be remembered that investment is compensated when a person reaches adulthood.

Therefore, early childhood care and education should be generally accessible (e.g. in some countries, girls are deprived of a preschool education) and of high quality.

National governments, which bear the main responsibility for implementing the educational objectives, should create conditions so that every child can achieve an adequate level of development prior to school entry. The quality depends on many factors, including age-appropriate educational programs, availability of opportunities for play, books and other teaching materials and social incentives, health, nutrition and sanitation. There needs to be a sufficient number of teachers trained to work with children at different levels.

As I said above, funds allocated to pre-school education do not go to waste, but are repaid. Scientific research shows that children, who receive quality education at preschool age, normally continue education in higher education institutes. They not only find jobs but also earn higher wages. Accordingly, they accumulate savings and contribute more to the social security system. Therefore, the care for children preschool education protects them from poverty and crime risks in the future. - How are these issues resolved in different countries?

- It must be admitted that the early childhood’s importance is increasingly recognized on a global basis. As I already said, this is stated in the EFA Programme, Millennium Declaration and other documents and political declarations supported by many countries.

It should be noted that this is not only an expression of intents at a political level, declared by the states. Currently, some results have been achieved - the world over, young children have received more and more attention, and now more children than ever go to school. After the World Education Forum in 2000, primary school enrolments dramatically increased. In many countries, broader opportunities for learning opened up for girls and women. This is especially evident in Africa, Southern and Western Asia.

Nevertheless, early childhood care and education problems at national level are still often beyond the scope of politics and, correspondingly, often deprived of proper funding.

This topic often is not addressed in national development projects – e.g. in poverty reduction strategies. By far not in all states an institutional framework is established, which would allow to fully solve the problem. The complication is obvious - this problem falls within the competence of various ministries, departments and organizations (health, education, nutrition, social welfare and education). Many countries do not use reasonable efforts at the political level for the care and education of children under three years, although this problem is especially acute. It is also clear that governments pay little attention to gender parity at the preschool age. I want to emphasize that all these problems are inherent in the developed and affluent countries.

- If so, what is the situation in developing and poor countries?

- It has to be ascertained that there are many countries in the world, especially in Africa, where the issue of education in general and early childhood education in particular, is especially acute. The developing and poorest countries invest almost nothing in this area. In most African countries, less than 0.1% of budget money is allotted to education, in others a little more - about 1%. In addition to these difficulties of financial and economic nature the younger children are threatened by global warming, which causes more and more severe environmental catastrophes and natural disasters. A special approach is required to states experiencing conflict and post-conflict situations. Last year’s EFA Global Monitoring Report noted that not all countries are close to achieving the EFA goals by 2015. It also emphasizes that under current trends, millions of children will be deprived of access to primary education as before.

A conclusion, I think, is obvious. Without political will and decisive actions it is not possible to solve the above problems. National governments should pay close attention to the entire range of issues relating to preschool children care and education. Appropriate legislative rules, goal-oriented programs, strategies must be developed and, of course, implemented, as well as adequate funds invested.

- What is the situation with early childhood care and education in Russia?

- In Russia, preschool children care and education receive serious attention. First, every Russian citizen has the right to accessible and free pre-school education, this right is enshrined in the Constitution. Secondly, we have developed the relevant legal acts at the federal, regional and local levels. I will not enumerate – they are numerous, and they concern different aspects of education. Thirdly, we have a diverse network of pre-school educational institutions – general developing, compensating, combined, health-improving, which correspond to different features of child development. The system of preschool education in Russia is considered today as a factor of strengthening and maintaining the health of children, as well as improving the demographic situation. An increase in fertility is not to be expected without guaranteeing that the child will be placed in kindergarten and there he will receive proper care, particularly, in terms of arrangements for feeding and physical education. Our statistical data show that upon availability of affordable childcare facilities, mothers’ working hours would be almost doubled. Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation has prepared a good regional report on the status and development of preschool education in Russia - the report will be one of the key at the Moscow conference.

- What results does Russia expect from the Conference?

- At the Moscow conference, representatives of UNESCO Member States (about a thousand participants from 193 countries were invited) will analyse the main political approaches of different countries to early childhood care and education, will assess the financial resources allocated to preschool education, as well as consider various associated problems.

Summarizing the results of the Conference it is planned to develop a realistic plan of action (or some kind of ‘road-map’), which will facilitate the realization of the first goal of the EFA Programme and the Development Goals relating to children’s health, nutrition and education. This plan, as I already said, is of particular importance for the poorest countries. Of course, UNESCO, within its competence will assist these countries in terms of global coordination and technical assistance.

Results of the Conference will be discussed at the forthcoming session of the UNESCO Executive Board in October. As demonstrated by the discussion at the previous meeting, the developing countries are concerned that against the backdrop of a global financial crisis the internationally agreed education goals will not be achieved.

In spite of the fact that the Moscow conference is organized by UNESCO, great responsibility rests with Russia. This is the first in the history of UNESCO forum dedicated to early childhood care and education. Russia has initiated the Conference and is its contributor. Of course, we will make every possible effort to meet the future Plan of Action to be developed in Moscow.