This blog highlights the key discussions from a panel session on ‘Strengthening laws, policy, and governance for early childhood care and education: Towards an equal and inclusive education’, organised by the Right to Education Initiative at the CIES Conference in February 2023
Early childhood care and education (ECCE) is a powerful equaliser that can expand opportunities and enable all children, including the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, to start school on an equal footing with their peers and improve overall educational achievement. However, as Sheldon Shaeffer Chair of the Board of Directors of the Asia-Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood (ARNEC). highlighted in his opening remarks, there is growing evidence of significant –and even increasing –inequalities in providing quality ECCE. This exclusion on ECCE has been exacerbated by COVID-19, affecting the most marginalised and vulnerable and leaving them at risk with their rights unfilled.
The CIES panel discussion centred on the right to equality and inclusion in early childhood care and education, and brought different research findings and perspectives together. The panel highlighted a study of views and recommendations of UN Treaty bodies’ concluding observations; an analysis of ECCE references in the reports of UN Special Rapporteurs’ on the Right to Education; and the research findings of the UNESCO GEM report on the role of non-state actors and the implications in accessing equal and quality ECCE. These discussions amplified the inequalities in ECCE provision worldwide, analysed the key factors leading to exclusion at ECCE, and highlighted the intrinsic correlations between the right to equality and the right to education, explicitly focusing on ECCE. The final presentation, which was based on the Tashkent Declaration and the need for reforms in the legal and policy framework, aimed at providing legal solutions and emphasised the need for an inclusive legal framework that guarantees the right to equality in ECCE.
Inequalities in access to ECCE are widespread
A study by Sandra Fredman, Professor of Law; Georgina Donati,Post-doctoral Researcher, University of Oxford; and team, analysed the concluding observations of three UN Treaty bodies, namely the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), between 2015 and 2020. This study noted the reference of ECCE in 79% of CRC, 67% of CESCR, and 47% of CCRP concluding observations. These references indicate that the inequality of access to ECCE is rife. The graph below shows the percentage of observations made by the UN treaty bodies regarding the lack of access for marginalised groups such as those living in poverty, girls, children with disabilities, minorities, ethnic groups, and those with migrant status. In the case of poor rural children, all three committees have observed discrimination. Similarly, the CESCR has observed discrimination against girls in at least 47% of their reviewed countries.
Similarly, The UN Special Rapporteurs seem to have predominantly covered the inequalities in the ECCE segment and its impact on lifelong learning. Rajakumari Michaelsamy, ECCE Programme Manager, Right to Education Initiative, mentioned that out of the 33 thematic reports analysed between 1999-2022, ECCE was referred to in 69% (23) of the reports, with one entirely dedicated to ECCE. In particular, reports on the right to education of marginalised communities, including children with disabilities, migrants, persons in prisons, refugees and asylum seekers etc., referred to ECCE. Out of the 29 country visit reports analysed, ECCE was referred to in 90% (26) of the in-country reports written, focusing primarily on the difficulties faced by children from marginalised groups (rural children, indigenous, racial and ethnic minorities and migrants) in gaining access to quality ECCE.
In her presentation, Anna C. D’Addio, Thematic Lead, GEM Report (UNESCO) mentioned that the most vulnerable are at the most significant risk of being left behind. For instance, over half of Roma children in Europe are missing out on pre-primary education. She also said over 60% of children of age two do not attend ECCE in several middle and high-income countries.
Inequalities are cyclical and transmit from one generation to another
The UN committees’ concluding observations highlight the cyclical relationship between education and poverty, and recommend breaking it by ensuring ECCE provision for poorer families. The committees also pointed out the intersectional relationship between poverty and those living in rural areas by consistently expressing concern that those in poorer settings, such as rural areas, will likely have less access to ECCE.
Moreover, the committees, especially the CESCR, which highlighted the inequalities in access to ECCE for girls, emphasise the intergenerational transmission of inequality through discrimination against women and girls. Referencing her study, Georgina Donati said, ‘Girls often face challenges at school in the form of discrimination, violence and later pregnancy. Pregnancy often leads to girls leaving school, which has a knock-on effect on their children because maternal education is one of the most reliable predictors of child development outcomes globally. Women then often face unequal parenting and work opportunities as adults making it more difficult for them to advance for themselves and their children.’ The UNESCO GEM report also confirms the similar view that women often pay the price for inadequate provision of ECCE. For instance, even in Europe, women perform more than three times more unpaid care work than men.
UN Special Rapporteurs’ reports indicate similar views that children from poor, rural areas and marginalised groups do not have equal access to ECCE. They also highlight the lack of public provision and inadequate investment as the main drivers of exclusion for children from disadvantaged communities. Besides, the Special Rapporteur’s reports also correlate with the lack of adequate investment in ECCE, the growing phenomena of privatisation and increasing inequalities in accessing ECCE. This is reflected in 17 (59%) country visit reports. For example, in the 2016 report on Fuji, Mr Kishore Singh observed the disparities in access to education between rural/remote and urban areas as ‘preschool is not yet covered as part of the fee-free education’. Similarly, Dr Koumbou Boly Barry, in a recent report on ECCE, said, “Privately -funded ECCE, which predominates in most countries at the global level, limits the realisation of many human rights to those who can afford them, furthering the division within society rather than healing them.’
The research conducted by the UNESCO GEM report also confirms the increasing trend in privatisation in the absence of adequate free public provision. According to the report, in 2018, private institutions accounted for 57% of high-income countries and 46% of middle-income countries. Some countries in Oceania have nearly 100% of preschool students enrolled in non-state institutions. The UNESCO GEM report also highlights that the regulations of ECCE vary. According to the report, regulations focus more on registration approval or licensing, teacher certification, and infrastructure but less on quality or equity, fee setting, or supporting access to disadvantaged students.
An inclusive legal framework is vital to address inequalities from the start of early education
As a response to this situation, the fourth presentation of the panel focussed on the need for an inclusive legal framework, as this would pave the way to address inequalities to some extent by making states accountable. Rolla Moumne, Right to Education Programme Lead and Specialist, UNESCO, highlighted the findings of the UNESCO study ‘Right to pre-primary education’ and said, ‘Legally guaranteeing at least one year of free and compulsory pre-primary education led to increased government prioritisation and funding, higher enrolment rates and higher rates of early childhood well-being.’ She also highlighted some critical outcomes of the Tashkent conference concerning the scope of expanding the international legal framework. The Tashkent Declaration calls on states to ‘examine the feasibility of supporting and enshrining the right to ECCE in an international legal instrument including in the context of the Evolving Right to Education Initiative’. She further outlined a thematic report entitled ‘Building and strengthening the legal framework on ECCE rights: achievements, challenges and actions for change’, product of a collaboration between UNESCO, RTE, Oxford Human Rights Hub, Human Rights Watch (HRW), World Organization for Early Childhood Education (OMEP), the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, and the Latin American Campaign for the Right to education (CLADE), published at the ECCE World Conference. She said the international instrument should focus on key components such as a) reinforcing rights in the early years of life, b) ensuring access to quality programmes and services, c) enhancing inclusion and equity in ECCE, and d) strengthening governance.
The session’s discussant was Clara Fontdevila, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, who acknowledged these inequalities and lack of commitment from states, and further triggered the discussion to deepen the understanding of the ground realities, asking:
Why is ECCE still behind?
How do we explain the lack of progress in ECCE?
Why so much reliance on non-state actors?
How has Covid 19 exacerbated the situation?
Why are states not investing in ECCE?
Is there international cooperation?
What is the role of Bretton Wood Institutions?
These questions opened up further analysis, leading to suggestions from the panel which sit in close proximity to the recommendations made by the UN Treaty bodies to different countries, the UNESCO GEM report and the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Education.
The panel made the following recommendations, many of which align with the recommendations made by Dr Koumbou Boly Barry, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, in her report on ECCE to the UN Human Rights Council in 2022. Full detailsa and analysis of this report can be found here.
Laws, policies and programmes that should guarantee equity and inclusion. Dr. Boly Barry too recommended a legal instrument.
Increased budget allocation for ECCE, which was also emphasised by Dr. Boly Barry
Regulatory framework for governing the privatisation of education ‘based on the principles of social justice and equality . Dr. Boly Barry strongly recommended this by quoting Abidjan Principles and recommending a reversal of the privatisation trend.
Establishing quality standards and uniform monitoring processes for both public and private institutions; and
Integrated approach to ECCE focusing other rights of young children including their right to survival along with pre-primary education.
As in most cases, the most vulnerable are those facing the most significant challenges as regards access to quality ECCE. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these pre-existing inequalities. As Sheldon Shaeffer mentioned, climate change and environmental degradation would disproportionately affect families and children already vulnerable. Therefore, particular focus should be given to children from disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable situations to guarantee equal educational opportunities from the start of early education. Further, as Sheldon recommended, this focused approach must ensure equality in access (physical access) and quality (learning process). Only when access and quality are considered can the right to ECCE genuinely be fulfilled
Our gratitude to Sheldon Sheffer, Chair of the panel, and panelists Anna Cristina D'Addio, Georgina Donati, Rolla Moumne and Rajakumari Michaelsamy, and to our discussant, Clara Fontdevila.
Rajakumari Michaelsamy is ECCE Programme Manager at Right to Education Initiative