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Early education can play a powerful role in fostering inclusion

In the small northern Croatian town of Orehovica, preschoolers get together twice a week to play and learn. The classes, which include children of Roma background, are full of energy. Activities adapted to everyone’s needs have created a sense of belonging for every child, regardless of their identity. 

The teachers are trained in inclusive education practices, and know how best to support these young children before they enter primary school. Most importantly, parents play a central role at the preschool and feel supported and valued. The positive effect on the children has spilled over into the local community and improved social cohesion.

The Orehovica programme’s success underscores the truth that the period from birth to the age of five is vital to a person’s long-term development. The brain grows rapidly during this time and develops important skills that influence our health, how well we do at school and how good we are at our jobs.

High-quality early education helps nurture these skills and can yield remarkable benefits. United States researchers have spent the past 50 years studying the effect of such programmes on children who had attended them in the 1960s. They found that participation in early childhood education reduced the likelihood of children being placed in special education and increased high-school graduation rates by as much as 11 percentage points. These children experienced fewer suspensions from school, had better employment outcomes and overall mental well-being and were less likely to receive criminal convictions.

Evidence from other countries points to a similarly clear pattern. In Chile, an analysis of fourth-grade learners showed that children who had attended preschool — poorer children in particular — did better in reading and maths than those who had not. In Indonesia, early childhood education reduced gaps between poorer and richer children in language, cognitive development, communication, general knowledge and pro-social behaviour.

Despite the importance of these early years, a recent study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Global Education Monitoring Report, Right from the Start, estimates that two in five children, mostly in low- and lower-middle-income countries, are still missing out on pre-primary school. Children disadvantaged as a result of disability, ethnicity, language, poverty, migration or displacement not only are already more likely to suffer from malnutrition and poor health, they are also more likely to be unable to access preschool education.

The preschool participation gap between children from rich and poor households is stark; in some African countries, it exceeds 60 percentage points. Ethnic gaps also can be large. In Greece, for example, only 28% of Roma children are in pre-primary education, compared to an overall enrolment rate of 84%.

Right from the Start argues that giving everyone the same educational opportunity from the beginning can play a powerful role in fostering inclusion. Giving all children pre-primary education, regardless of their background, identity, or ability, would level the playing field later in life. But most countries leave this up to chance. Only 28% make pre-primary schooling compulsory for all children.

In the poorest countries, many preschools are underfunded and not equipped to provide high-quality inclusive education. Children need safe schools, and support from adequately trained teachers to thrive, but too many early-education environments fail them.

In Malawi, a survey of staff at childcare centres found that only one in three had a relevant qualification. But quality concerns exist in high-income countries, too. In the Italian region of Tuscany, for example, about 60% of teachers said they were unfamiliar with the needs of immigrant, refugee and Roma learners.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened inequalities, making the case for an inclusive start in education even stronger. Governments and international organisations will soon launch a new Global Partnership Strategy on early education, with the aim of ensuring that every child can go to pre-primary school.

It is vital that countries prioritise early education appropriately. They must ensure teachers are trained in inclusive education and that curricula take into account children’s diversity. — © Project Syndicate

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Manos Antoninis
Manos Antoninis

Manos Antoninis is the director of the Global Education Monitoring Report produced by Unesco.

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