The second UNESCO World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education (WCECCE), held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan from 14-16 November, was convened to mobilise countries and partners to reaffirm the right to ECCE and to urge Member States’ renewed commitment to and investment in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 4.2’.
Occurring 12 years after the first World Conference on ECCE in Moscow, the second World Conference set another milestone, not least with the publication of the Tashkent Declaration and Commitments to Action for Transforming Early Childhood Care and Education. We, the Right to Education Initiative, have been consistently engaged and actively participated both in the preparatory process and at the conference in Tashkent. The UNESCO thematic report on ‘Building and strengthening the legal framework on ECCE Rights: Achievements, challenges and actions for change, which we co authored, and the parallel event which we co-organised with UNESCO and other partners on ‘ECCE rights and legal framework’ are a significant actions that set the foundations for civil society and UNESCO to take forward one of the Tashkent Declaration commitments of examining the ‘necessity of enshrining the right to ECCE in an international normative instrument.’ RTE also contributed to the discourse on
ECCE financing at the civil society forum and co-organised a side event along with other civil society partners on the role of civil society actors and partnership in advancing ECCE. An additional highlight was the opportunity to visit preschools in Uzbekistan and directly interact with the little ones. Our visit to a mobile pre- school in one of the rural areas was a rejuvenating experience - which demonstrates the potential of creativity to support an inclusive education. The following discussion shares some of the key outcomes and takeaways which we believe to be important in the realisation of young children’s right to education.
Human Rights: central to the agenda of the World Conference
‘The first commitment we are making here in Tashkent is to acknowledge pre-primary education as a fundamental right’ said UNECO’s Director General Audrey Azoulay in the opening session of the policy day. She further endorsed that ‘Children are people of today. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises their right which begins even before birth’. The explicit recognition of ECCE rights and its existence in the international human rights law and as well as its importance for the realisation of other rights was echoed throughout the conference, and this human rights dimension sets the core of the conference agenda. Indeed, the notion that ‘learning begins at birth’, a concept first introduced in the World Declaration on Education for All, Jomtien, Thailand (1990) Jomtien Declaration, was reaffirmed throughout the conference, by Borhene Chakroun, UNESCO Director for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems, Amina J. Mohammed - Deputy Secretary General, and by Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s Assistant Director for education. Furthermore, Farida Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, highlighted that ‘ECCE is a key aspect of the right to life-long education for all – which if it is truly lifelong must start from birth. It is also an essential element for realising a wide range of educational, social and economic rights.’
The significance of education as an enabler right was also a core theme; Mercedes Mayol, President of OMEP, said ´ECCE is not only a human right but a foundation for realisation of other human rights’. Dennis Sinyolo, Director from Education International Africa region, reaffirmed ECCE as a public good and a fundamental right that should be free for all children. ECCE also has the potential to affect wider societal change; UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay recalled ECCE as a powerful tool to promote gender equality, and it was recognised by various speakers as an essential component for the realisation of all SDG goals.
Crucially, Finland’s statement reaffirmed ECCE as a human right and the overall importance of education, noting:‘ECCE is a human right and an investment we cannot afford to postpone. It lays the foundation for learning, for social and emotional development and for the well-being of our children.’
This strong trend of recognising ECCE rights is encapsulated in the Tashkent Declaration, which asserts that ‘ECCE is key to achieving the right to education for all and to enable the fulfilment of other social rights’ and calls upon States to ensure that their policy and legal framework on right to education includes ECCE.
A strong call for inclusion, equality and quality education for all
Acknowledging the inadequate progress made so far and existing gaps for equal access to ECCE, the conference strongly emphasised the need for equitable, inclusive and quality ECCE services for all, prioritising the most marginalised children. As Mercedes Mayol affirmed, inclusive and quality care and education are human rights and key factors for the very young to thrive and develop to their full potential. Therefore, the dimension of inclusion is reflected in all aspects of the Declaration, including policies and law, program implementation, funding, ECCE personnel recruitment and training, etc. The Declaration also seeks ‘to protect and guarantee the right to ECCE in and after emergencies and protracted crises’. Inclusive approaches to financing and other programme plans are highly recommended, and indeed Anna Carmen Murru, in a presentation at the civil society forum said, ‘Huge Funding gaps exist in the provision of ECCE. Civil society organisations (CSOs) should engage in advocacy, ensure there is an inclusive approach to funding, and strengthen accountability mechanisms’.
Strengthening the Legal Framework for ECCE is key for realisation of SDGs:
One of the main aims of this conference was to enhance the legal and policy frameworks on ECCE, which is similarly a core aim of RTE. During the conference we co-organised a parallel event on ECCE rights and legal frameworks, in collaboration with UNESCO, OMEP and other civil society partners. This created a space for a reflection, and for discussion and definition of the scope, extent, contours, and possible modalities for the development of a dedicated international normative framework for further protection and guarantees. In the absence of an explicit reference to ECCE in International law, this panel recommended a new legal framework, so that states can align their political commitment with legal guarantees. As stated by Delphine Dorsi, RTE’s Executive Director, while political commitments set the goals, the legal framework is essential to make states accountable for the realization of children’s rights. Our previously mentioned thematic report elaborates in detail the key aspects that the international legal framework should embrace. Delphine Dorsi highlighted some of these dimensions, outlining that the legal framework should cover dimensions of both access and quality. This includes the right to non-discrimination and equality, one year of free pre-primary education, regulation of non-state involvement, play based pedagogy, mother tongue learning, and adequate human technical financial resources.'
Strengthening the legal framework has been a core area of work for RTE for the past two years, and it was encouraging to see the call to guarantee at least one year of free pre-primary education in line with Sustainable development goal. Additionally, we were pleased to see the call in the Tashkent Declaration to ‘examine the feasibility, suitability and necessity of enshrining the right to ECCE in an international normative instrument’ and to ’enhance the policy and legal framework to ensure that the right to education includes ECCE’ in a way which respects the four A’s framework, as this chimes with our advocacy aims.
Invest in ECCE, and prioritise the most disadvantaged
The right to education cannot be realised without financial commitments which are implemented and enforced. It is time for the States to pay attention to and prioritise the historically underfunded ECCE sector. One of the most significant outcomes of the conference was the commitment made by Member States to invest at least 10% of the education budget on ECCE. Proclaiming this political commitment in the Tashkent Declaration, countries are envisaging to guarantee at least one year of free pre-primary in education, in alignment with SDGs.4.2. They also commit to ‘prioritize and reorient public expenditures for ECCE to focus on the poorest and most disadvantaged.’
The importance of investment on ECCE was consistently highlighted, and the UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay called for increasing funding both at national and international level. She said: ‘Investing in early childhood is crucial to reduce social inequalities, which begin even before birth. For a long time, early childhood has been a blind spot in public policy. Increasing funding, both national and international, will make a difference for future generations.’
Quoting references from the recommendations of the UN Treaty bodies in concluding observations and in the reports of UN Special Rapporteur’s on the Right to Education, RTE highlighted the gaps and concerns about ECCE financing including underfunding, inequitable funding and discriminatory funding. We further highlighted how the lack of adequate public investment for ECCE leads to the growth of private provision, in turn leading to inequalities and discrimination in accessing education.
Afshan Khan, speaking at a UNICEF side event, raised the alarm that investment in pre-primary education is declining, with the cost of under prioritising ECCE higher than the cost of ECCE itself. UNICEF's recent report entitled ‘Add today, multiply tomorrow’, as discussed during our side event, documents case stories from eight countries and builds a case for ECCE investment. Emphasising 10% allocation of education budget for ECCE, this report calls upon states to include equity considerations in ECCE to serve the marginalised communities and children with disabilities.
Recognising and empowering ECCE professionals: key to quality ECCE
This conference gave prominent recognition to the ECCE workforce. Recognising existing gaps and challenges, states were encouraged to focus on strengthening education and training systems and ensuring wages and working conditions of ECCE practitioners are on par with those of primary education teachers. It also sought to examine the feminisation of the ECCE sector and to include diversity of societies and communities, particularly under represented groups, into the profession. It also encouraged states to regulate ECCE personnel in the private sectors and provide support to parents, families and other caregivers. However, while the rights of ECCE personnel were promoted and the importance of social dialogue and decent working conditions was emphasised, the commitment to protect their labour rights was not explicitly enunciated. A greater emphasis could have been placed on the latter dimension; in particular, states could have been encouraged to follow the ILO guidelines.
Inequalities and non-state actors’ involvement in ECCE: twin challenges to be addressed
Anna d’Addio of UNESCO GEM report emphasised how non-state actors dominate care and education services for children under age three, noting that non-state provision has increased in pre-primary education, up from 28.5% in 2000 to 37% in 2019. Referring to the 2021/22 GEM report on non-states actors, she stressed that non-state provision of ECCE remains unaffordable for families. As access depends a lot on family wealth, the most at risk children are left behind. She pointed out that the regulations tend to focus on administrative requirements related to registration, approval or licensing and indicated that the GEM report recommends to design laws, policies and programmes with an equity and inclusion dimensions.
Nicolai Stensig, Senior Advisor at Union of Education Norway, and speaking on behalf of Education International, also warned against the negative impact of privatisation on the right to quality early childhood education and on the ECE personnel’s working conditions, stating: ‘The privatization of early childhood education impacts the autonomy of the ECE workforce. They cannot adapt the pedagogical resources to their concept or to the children. We know ECE must be of quality, it is a public good. All ECE workers must have the same professionalisation level.’
In the non-state actors forum, Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director General for Education at UNESCO, struck a note of caution, stating that ‘we don’t want the private sector to replace States but complement their efforts in realising ECCE rights for all’. This is exactly what is stated in the Guiding Principle 48.a of the Abidjan Principles on the human rights obligations of States to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education. In her statement presenting the multi-stakeholders joint commitment, Mercedes Mayol highlighted their importance, recalling ‘they provide guidelines for states to define the public service obligations of non-state actors involved in education to ensure their contribution to the realization of the right to education, avoiding inequalities or adverse effects.’ The Tashkent Declaration recognises their relevance and usefulness listing them among ‘other pioneering international and regional initiatives and statements’ (para. 8).
Commitment from governments is crucial to turn Tashkent commitments into tangible actions:
‘The real game changer is the governmental commitment, political leadership to make public investment for ECE and ensure provision of ECE for every child’ said Dennis Sinyolo, Director of Education International’s Africa Regional Office. The main aim of the conference was to mobilise countries and other partners to reaffirm their commitment for ECCE. Nearly 70 Education ministers and over 140 country representatives attended the conference, out of which more than 50 countries chose to make official statements and others engaged in the parallel and side events, sharing their experiences and best practices.
It was heartening to hear the reaffirmation of their commitment to ECCE, especially towards implementation of SDG 4.2. Almost all countries acknowledge the importance of ECCE for the overall development of children and society. And, mostly they chose to highlight the nature of their ECCE programs and their national priorities, with their statements broadly covering aspects related to quality and inclusive education policies, the holistic approach to ECCE, curriculum framework, play-based pedagogies, the introduction of digital education, the different service providers, mechanisms adapted for better inter departmental coordination and training of teachers, etc. In all of these different dimensions, the reference to quality and inclusive ECCE policies appeared predominantly. Some states also highlighted the key challenges they faced and the need for international cooperation and partnership. Others put forward råecommendations; for example Gambia and Nigeria expressed the challenges they face, especially regarding equal access for children from marginalised communities and how they are addressing it with the support of other partners like UNICEF and World Bank.
In terms of other targeted areas of the conference such as legal frameworks, financial commitments and enhancing ECCE professionals, a few countries clearly demonstrated their position. For example, the UNESCO Director General Audrey declared that Uzbekistan, the host country for the conference, lead the way with a dedication of a quarter of the education budget to ECCE. In its statement, Brazil mentioned ECCE as a constitutional right and noted the increased allocation of their education budget from 4.2% to 6.2% GDP. The Republic of Slovenia discussed how preschool education is allocated 19.5% of their public expenditure on education, which is 5.4% of GDP. Germany and Norway highlighted their efforts to enhance ECCE professionalism. Mauritius and Naru discussed providing free pre-primary education. Bangladesh and Iceland put forth recommendations for strengthening the international legal obligations on ECCE.
As Finland said in their statement, ‘Educated minds and hearts are the best and most sustainable assets any nation can have’. Consequently, it is disappointing that in spite of the representation of three quarters of UNESCO Member States, the commitment for increasing financial commitment and providing free pre-primary education for all did not emerge more strongly.
Recalling the importance of education in nation building, especially ECCE, we hope that the countries will make efforts to fulfill the Tashkent commitments. As Mauritius reminded us, we have just eight years more to fulfill the 2030 agenda.
CSOs and UNESCO are the key agents taking forward conference commitments
ECCE is one of the priority areas for UNESCO. With the launch of its global partnership strategy in December 2021, UNESCO intends to mobilise Member States to take tangible actions towards the realisation of SDG 4.2. The milestone Tashkent conference is a significant part of this journey, which is not possible without the involvement of civil society actors. Through forming part of the various thematic and regional consultations, co-organising parallel events, organising side events, civil society organisations played a crucial role in shaping the conference agenda and outcomes. The civil society forum held on the pre-conference engagement day was an opportunity for civil society to share their concerns and commitments towards transforming ECCE in the coming years. The drafting committee of the Tashkent Declaration had civil society representation - RTE advisors Mercedes Mayol, OMEP President, and Sheldon Shaeffer, played a crucial role in securing the inclusion of the human rights agenda in the declaration.
The Tashkent declaration invokes certain responsibilities for both UNESCO and CSOs. Since the international human rights law lacks explicit reference to ECCE, the declaration seeks civil society and UNESCO to examine the necessity of enshrining an international normative instrument for ECCE rights. Importantly, the declaration encourages civil society to continue the monitoring role to ensure effective implementation of ECCE. It was also highlighted at the Civil society forum. Anna d’ Addio, from GEM UNESCO and Mercedes Mayol, President OMEP highlighted the critical role of CSOs acting as watchdogs to ensure the protection of the right to education. Rajakumari further emphasised the need to empower communities to use human rights mechanisms for reporting and accountability
RTE, being actively engaged in advocacy work towards strengthening the international legal framework on ECCE and developing monitoring tools for monitoring ECCE at national level, finds a close alignment with the Tashkent commitments. The conference also opened up space for direct interaction with UNESCO, civil society and member states; however the space for civil society to directly put forth their concerns and recommendations to the member states was limited.
UNESCO’s Director General Audrey Azoulay also reassured UNESCO’s commitment and support, especially in areas of promoting ECCE as a fundamental right to education, training of educators, publishing data on ECCE and promoting investment on ECCE.
‘2022 is a year of mobilization of international communities for education’ said UNESCO Director General Azoulay. The Conference reaffirmed ECCE as a fundamental right, crucial for the realisation of the overall right to education. It reminded us that ECCE is the responsibility of states. It reaffirmed state obligations in terms of investment in ECCE, improved access and quality, inclusive policies and programmes, the recognition of the ECCE workforce, the importance of maintaining a better data system, and the need to strengthen legal frameworks to ensure access at least one of pre-primary education to all children. Furthermore, as Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the UN noted in her address the Tashkent Declaration crystallizes all political commitment related to ECCE. We hope these renewed commitments are translated into concrete action for the realisation of the 2030 agenda.
Rajakumari is ECCE Programme Manager at RTE. Delphine Dorsi is Executive Director at RTE.