Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

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

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Manos Antoninis
Manos Antoninis

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

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Capitec Bank flies high above Viceroy’s arrow

The bank took a knock after being labelled a loan shark by the short seller, but this has not stymied its growth

Zondo may miss chief justice cut

The deputy chief justice is said to top Ramaphosa’s list but his position as head of the state capture commission is seen as too politically fraught

More top stories

Council wants Hawks, SIU probe into BAT’s Zimbabwe scandal

The cigarette maker has been accused of giving up to $500 000 in bribes and spying on competitors

How Alpha Condé overthrew Alpha Condé

Since the coup d’état, Guinea’s head of state has been in the custody of the military officers. But it was the president who was the primary architect of his own downfall

‘The Making of Mount Edgecombe’: A view of history from...

Indian indentured labourers’ lives are celebrated in a new book, Sugar Mill Barracks: The Making of Mount Edgecombe

Case of men arrested with 19 rhino horns is postponed

Alleged rhino kingpin and a Mpumalanga businessman appeared in court on charges of the illegal possession and selling of rhino horns
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×