New drive to protect early childhood education in the context of the COVID-19 crisis

A UNESCO COVID-19 Education webinar, organized on 15 July 2020, under the high patronage of Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development, shed light on the importance of early childhood care and education (ECCE) to ensure that learning and wellbeing of young children is given due consideration when educational and care services are disrupted, with a special attention given to vulnerable young children.

More than 1.5 billion students in over 180 countries, of whom 155 million children at pre-school level, are affected by the largest disruption to education since the creation of the United Nations, said Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant-Director General for Education, in the opening of the webinar which attracted more than 1000 participants including global leaders, country policymakers, ECCE practitioners and education partners.

Global impact of COVID-19 on early childhood education

The closure of schools and other institutions that provide social protection, health, nutrition, learning and socio-emotional nurturing to young children represents an immense threat to their development potential. In response, UNESCO, together with a number of partner organizations, will be launching the #Save Our Future campaign this month to protect and prioritize education as the key to the recovery – and the best investment for our future. This includes early childhood education as “an equalizer and a changer” calling for a paradigm shift in education, Ms Giannini said.

The overview of the global impact of COVID-19 on early childhood education presented by Mr Gwang-Chol Chang, Chief of Education Policy Section at UNESCO, showed the findings of global surveys and consultations that UNESCO conducted, in collaboration with UNICEF and the World Bank regarding the impact of COVID-19 on education systems and more particularly on early childhood education.

Although, some countries have been taking measures to support families, caregivers and children, such as financial support, psychological counselling, and emergency childcare service available to frontline volunteers, the general observation is that during school closures, pre-primary education was relatively neglected compared to other levels of education.

The main challenge, as stated by Her Royal Highness Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, is that ‘early childhood development has always been a blind spot in our pre-COVID societies and the pandemic has shown how vulnerable young children are’, asking ‘why ECCE is the forgotten child in our societies’. ‘We failed our younger children’ she further deplored.

Country experiences

A ministerial round-table offered the occasion to Ministers of Education and their representatives from the different regions of the world to present their experiences and priority actions in this area. In Seychelles, for example, the Minister presented an effective communication plan implemented and strong commitment of ECCE leaders which contributed to mobilize and engage all stakeholders while the Minister of Cambodia explained how public-private partnership was built to ensure learning continuity, in the use of online platforms, social medial and TV and Radio channels for children with no access to the internet, and even paper-based material for those who did not have access to any distance learning solution with particular attention to children from vulnerable groups.

From the Arab region, the representative of the Minister of Qatar explained that the State has invested in ECCE, by turning to distance education, focusing on support to parents and children and support to children with special needs, through special channels of communication. The Representative from Uruguay explained the new way of learning implemented in the country without compromising health and safety. Finally, Saudi Arabia, as chair of G20 which has ECCE as theme in its agenda, shared the initiative of virtual kindergarten for children 3-6 years of age, initiated before and amplified during the COVID-19 crisis.

Call for action

Referring to the paradigm shift called upon by UNESCCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands called on all stakeholders to have a discussion at a strategic level. Early childhood development should no longer be considered only a mere educational issue and should not be put on the sidelines of the discussions and strategy for economic recovery. It should be part of the discussions in multilateral fora because it is a strategic option, the best investment for societies. “Recovery cannot be just about investing in companies – it must also be about investing in the citizens of tomorrow”, the Princess said.

Two actions were announced to start with:

Train some 200,000 early childhood teachers and educators – including through online and offline platforms and sharing of already available pedagogical resources – with the support of Global Education Coalition.
Agree on a global strategy for ECCE with effective collaboration, building alliances and engaging in an innovative dialogue.
Reacting to the Call for Action, UN agencies and International NGOs representatives, from UNICEF, The World Bank, WHO, ILO, Right to Play, OMEP, Right to education Initiative, Save the Children and ECDAN, shared insights and commitments in this area, all recognizing that it is critical time to put ECCE as a priority in the agenda for recovery.

In her closing remarks Princess Laurentien stressed her impatience for action and call for introspection from ECCE stakeholders and called upon UNESCO, as the lead global UN organization for education, to call for a dialogue on how to act concretely to make ECCE at the core of the discussion on Covid-19 recovery strategies. ‘I shall chair this dialogue immediately after the summer’ she committed.

Stefania Giannini confirmed UNESCO’s willingness to work with all the partners present to identify and carry out concrete actions and stressed her own impatience to act. She welcomed the fact that the webinar had made it possible to gather the commitment of important stakeholders to work together.

The webinar was organized in the context of the Global Education Coalition launched by UNESCO and bringing together more than 140 partner organizations.

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