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 phase 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 broader communities. It constitutes both a significant and meaningful stage itself, and impacts the realisation of other human rights throughout a person’s lifetime.

Consequently, the 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 and achievement in school, and lowering school repetition and drop-out rates - thereby decreasing wastage in the education system.  It also contributes to reducing gender inequalities and broader societal benefits such as enhanced social cohesion, a lower rate of future violence and crime, higher individual incomes and stronger national economic development, a stronger cultural identity and a reduction in health costs and 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 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 globally, including in relation to the care and education of children in early childhood. This results in 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.