While it is generally recognised that the right to education is relevant to primary, secondary, tertiary and basic education levels, it is important to recognise that this human right also applies throughout ‘early childhood’, which the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines as the period from birth up until the age of eight.
Early childhood is understood as a critical developmental period as it represents the most rapid period of physical, cognitive, social and emotional growth of the human lifespan. These formative early years necessarily require a mixture of care and education for children, with close support by parents, families, other caregivers and communities more broadly. It constitutes both a significant and meaningful stage itself and impacts the realisation of other human rights throughout a person’s lifetime.
Consequently, early childhood care and education (ECCE) that children experience, from earliest infancy through to the transition to formal primary schooling, has a direct effect on their well-being, how they make sense of the world and the extent to which they are able to make the most of future opportunities. Research on ECCE demonstrates its importance in, among other things, tackling gender and other barriers to accessing primary school, increasing participation in school and lowering school drop-out rates. It also contributes to broader societal benefits such as enhanced social cohesion, a lower rate of future violence and crime, and a reduction in poverty cycles across generations.
The international human rights framework offers guidance to states and others about a rights-based approach to ECCE. As outlined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, education in all its forms and at all levels shall exhibit the following interrelated and essential features: availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability of education. As the CRC has explained, these elements must be adapted to the interests, concerns and changing capacities of children during early childhood. States must consider the best interests of the child throughout the early years, promote nurturing and non-violent forms of parenting and education, and – of particular significance at this time of life – ensure the right of the child to rest, leisure, play and to free participation in cultural life and the arts. States should work closely with communities to develop ECCE programs that complement parental and caregiver roles in early education, to ensure continuity of experience for children as they grow and transition to primary school. Given the essential mix of care and education, it is important that states adopt a comprehensive, holistic, multisectoral approach to ECCE, encompassing education, health, nutrition, sanitation and safety considerations.
In addition to states’ legal commitments to ECCE, states have also committed politically through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ensuring, by 2030, that “all girls and boys have access to quality early children development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education” (Sustainable Development Goal target 4.2). The complementary Incheon Declaration for the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 4 envisions ‘the provision of at least one year of free and compulsory quality pre-primary education and that all children have access to quality early childhood development, care and education’ (Article 6).
In light of the fundamental role of ECCE, increasing numbers of states around the world are committing to make at least one year of preschool education available and – significantly – free of cost for all children. However, government measures differ significantly in terms of ECCE research, planning, implementation, monitoring and accountability. Significant action is needed to develop a more coherent human rights approach to ECCE globally, so that all children can access good quality ECCE on an equal basis. This will require an appropriate balance between international target setting and the promotion and support of localised, contextually grounded approaches to supporting ECCE policies and practices, recognising that children live across widely diverse contexts.
A human rights-based analysis of ECCE also highlights broader societal issues beyond the education of children in early childhood. At present, women provide approximately three-quarters of all unpaid care work in all parts of the world, including relating to the care and education of children in early childhood, with significant restrictions on their ability to access formal employment, achieve pay and pension equality with men, and take advantage of other opportunities. States have a direct and transformative impact on gender equality when they build and strengthen robust ECCE frameworks, in compliance with their obligation to facilitate shared responsibility for caregiving between women and men and society as a whole, including as regards parental leave provisions.
States must ensure the availability of appropriate ECCE infrastructure and a professional ECCE workforce, through adequate funding and other enabling measures.
This requires states to make sure there are a sufficient number of institutions and programs to meet the needs of children within their jurisdictions, with attention paid to education, health, nutrition, sanitation and safety considerations in the planning and development of appropriate infrastructure and services such as buildings, institutions, facilities, materials, play spaces, toys, school meals and water/sanitation programs. The locations and broader environmental conditions in which ECCE takes place are also of increasing importance, with research indicating that access to green spaces is important to the mental well-being, overall health and cognitive development of children and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environmenthighlighting that exposure to environmental harm – such as air pollution, toxic substances and the loss of biodiversity and access to nature – has especially severe effects on children under the age of five.
Traditionally, teachers and others involved in ECCE have worked under poorer conditions than teachers at other levels of education, with little formal training, low pay, long hours of work and low status. Further, the workforce is comprised primarily of women at present, contributing to gender stereotypes associated with maternity and care roles historically assigned to women. To realise the right to education in practice, states should take appropriate measures to enhance the profile of ECCE as a field of research, policy and practice, so that it is socially valued and able to attract a highly qualified, gender-balanced workforce. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has emphasised the need for professional ECCE training appropriate to the early childhood period, so that providers are able to recognise and respond to the evolving developmental needs for specific age groups and can incorporate key child’s rights principles into this field. The Council of Europe has recommended that all those contributing to ECCE be able to benefit from the findings of up-to-date research and knowledge of developments in the ECCE field and, whenever appropriate, to participate in such research. Where ECCE is provided by private actors, states must take steps to protect the right to education including comprehensive oversight and accountability measures; guidance in this regard can be found in the Guiding Principles on the human rights obligations of states to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education (Abidjan Principles).
As ECCE services have frequently been fragmented and underfunded, states’ obligations to fulfil the right to education in early childhood will require coherence between state, regional and local government levels and formalisation of government commitment to ECCE, including explicit acknowledgement in legislation, national action plans and policies, adequate funding, and monitoring and accountability. Child rights-based budget analysis is a central tool in supporting the development and assessment of state measures in this regard, including tracking the extent to which states are complying with their obligation to realise human rights to the maximum extent of their available resources. In connection with ECCE funding, it is important to emphasise that while an economic argument for investing in ECCE – which focuses on the cost-saving benefits to wider society of providing healthy foundations for young children – has gained traction in the field of ECCE in recent years, education is a fundamental human right in itself and should not be dependent on such economic justification.
Despite the fundamental role of early childhood care and education, significant inequalities persist within and across nations in terms of physical and financial access to and quality of ECCE, with often those who would benefit the most accessing ECCE the least. ECCE is often experienced as a privilege rather than a right in practice, particularly for the birth to three-year-old age group. Disruptions such as conflicts, economic crises, and health emergencies (as demonstrated by the Covid-19 global pandemic) serve to highlight and exacerbate such inequalities.
The international human rights framework provides that states must guarantee the availability, accessibility and quality of ECCE without discrimination. This includes taking steps to identify and address discrimination through systematic data collection, disaggregated in terms of major variables related to children’s and families’ background and circumstances. In this regard, UN treaty bodies and others have noted the need to pay particular attention to access to education by, among other groups, girls, children living in poverty or circumstances of extreme socio-economic deprivation, children with disabilities, children belonging to indigenous or minority groups, children in urban and rural settings, children from migrant families, children who are orphaned or lack parental care for other reasons, children living in institutions, children living with mothers in prison, refugee and asylum-seeking children, children living in or impacted by emergency situations such as disaster, conflict and other forms of crisis, children infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS, and children of alcohol- or drug-addicted parents.
States should adopt targeted measures to eliminate direct, indirect and intersectional forms of discrimination in connection with ECCE and take positive action to ensure that all children have positive, inclusive experiences and receive appropriate support towards a smooth transition into primary schooling. Beyond confronting such discrimination, the human rights framework encourages the adoption of a substantive equality approach to the realisation of rights, which redresses historical and current patterns of disadvantage, addresses harmful stereotypes, prejudice and violence, transforms biased institutional structures and practices, and facilitates social inclusion and participation. States should take positive action to celebrate and support diverse lived experiences. Of particular importance is the significance afforded to cultural and linguistic diversity within education, with a number of human rights instruments – such as the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages – encouraging states to make ECCE available in relevant regional or minority languages.
In addition to being available and accessible, the content and form of ECCE should respond to the evolving needs of young children, support the identification of any disabilities or developmental needs, and facilitate a smooth transition into formal primary schooling. While this will necessarily depend on local contexts and the characteristics of individual children, as a starting point it is helpful to recall the purpose of education as outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and various regional human rights instruments. The CRC affirms that the education of the child shall be directed to, among other things, ‘the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential’. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has explained further that the goal is to ‘empower the child by developing his or her skills, learning and other capacities, human dignity, self‑esteem and self‑confidence’ and that this must be achieved in ways that are child‑centred, child‑friendly and reflect the rights and inherent dignity of the child.
The content and quality of ECCE must be guided by the best interests of the child, framed broadly to encompass education, health, nutrition, sanitation, safety and other relevant considerations to promote the child’s holistic development, and support the child’s right to be heard and to express their views and feelings. States should develop ECCE programs and educational objectives which are culturally appropriate and flexible enough to adapt to the evolving development needs of early childhood. They should also incorporate human rights education, providing practical opportunities for children to exercise their rights and responsibilities in ways tailored to their interests, concerns and capacities.
In addition, the right of the child to rest, leisure, play and free participation in cultural life and the arts is a central component of rights-based ECCE programs. States should identify and remove potential obstacles to exploratory, child-centred ECCE contexts, for example, as arising in connection with excessive domestic chores, or the density and pollution associated with many urban environments. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed particular concern about the pressure for educational achievement, noting that ‘[e]arly childhood education is increasingly focused on academic targets and formal learning at the expense of participation in play and attainment of broader development outcomes’. The Committee recommends that states take appropriate measures to avoid pressure for educational achievement in the forms of emphasis on academic targets and success, the intrusion of extracurricular tuition and homework, formal settings and methods and decreased contact with nature, and fewer opportunities for cultural and artistic activities.
It is important that states pay attention to other emerging issues such as the risks of using digital technologies in early childhood, and also take steps to provide children with the grounding and skills to thrive and be resilient in changing communities, societies and socio-economic realities, which are being transformed in significant ways by, among other challenges, the current Covid-19 global pandemic and the escalating climate and ecological crises and associated impacts.
It is important that states develop and implement appropriate supervisory and monitoring systems for public and private ECCE institutions, programs and services.
Guidance in this regard can be found in various UN treaty body general comments and recommendations concerning the monitoring of potential discrimination in education. For example, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has recommended that States parties ‘[m]onitor the implementation of the right of girls and women to education by regularly collecting data disaggregated by sex, location, age, school type and ethnic group on access at all levels of education, including the following indicators: number of female and male students enrolled, and as a proportion of the overall school-age population, at each level of education; retention, dropout, attendance and repetition rates; average years of schooling for female and male students; rate of successful transition between school levels, including for early childhood to primary, primary to secondary and secondary to tertiary or vocational; number of male and female teachers, as an indication of the level of parity among teachers; and female and male literacy rates at different age levels; and by using the information to inform decision-making, policy formulation and periodic reports to the Committee on barriers to girls’ and women’s access to education…’
Similarly, the Sustainable Development Goal target 4.2 on access to quality ECCE is complemented by the following global and thematic indicators:
- the proportion of children aged 24-59 months who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being, by sex (global indicator 4.2.1)
- the participation rate in organized learning (one year before the official primary entry age), by sex (global indicator 4.2.2)
- the percentage of children under 5 years of age experiencing positive and stimulating home learning environments (thematic indicator 4.2.3)
- the gross early childhood education enrolment ratio in (a) pre-primary education and (b) early childhood educational development (thematic indicator 4.2.4)
- the number of years of (i) free and (ii) compulsory pre-primary education guaranteed in legal frameworks (thematic indicator 4.2.5)
The monitoring of progress in achieving 4.2 (looking at the indicators above) is reported by the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report
However, at present, there is generally an absence of human rights indicators focused on ECCE frameworks and experiences specifically. Building on previous works, such as the Early Childhood Rights Indicators (ECRI) Project, the Right to Education Initiative is committed to playing a leading role in supporting the establishment of specific indicators and guidance for monitoring ECCE from a human rights perspective.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979* (Preamble, Articles 5(b), 10 and 11(2)(c) and General Recommendation No. 36)
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, 1990* (Articles 12 and 20(2))
European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, 1992* (Article 8)
European Pillar of Social Rights, 2017 (Article 11)
Council of Europe (Recommendation Nos. 81(3), R(2000)4, CM/Rec(2007)13, CM/Rec(2009)4, CM/Rec(2012)13 and Recommendation on High-Quality Early Childhood Education and Care Systems (2019))
Global Agreements, Declarations and Frameworks for Action
Sustainable Development Goals, 2015 (Goal 4.2, Global Indicators 4.2.1 and 4.2.2)
Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action, 2015 (Article 6 and Framework for Action)
The World Declaration on Education for All and Framework for Action to Meet Basic Learning Needs (Jomtien Declaration), 1990 (Article 5 and Framework for Action)