The potential of quality early childhood care and education (ECCE) to transform young lives is increasingly recognised. Accounts of innovative and effective programmes have been disseminated widely and endorsed by scientific evidence as well as economic and human rights arguments. Reports about model programmes and the high returns on ECCE investments provide crucial leverage in advocating for policy change and programme development. They are also a source of inspiration to all who work with children and families. But they tell only part of the story. The focus of this paper is on the many challenges that lie ahead in making sure the potential of ECCE is being translated into practice, through improvements in the everyday lives of young children and families.
Our starting point is what might be described as ‘the everyday ordinariness’ of most ECCE programmes. We ask which children do and which do not have access to an early childhood programme? We explore children’s and parents’ views about the quality of what is on offer, as these inform the choices they make, and their transition into the early grades of primary school. We explore these questions in rural and urban communities in majority world contexts that don’t commonly feature in early childhood research and publications.
The working paper is based on interviews and observations carried out with children in Ethiopia, India and Peru. These children were all around 6 years old in 2006/7, a key transition point for starting school. Studying experiences and perspectives of parents and children makes it possible to examine to what extent promises made for early childhood are being translated into practice, in terms of accessible, equitable, quality programmes.
The case studies highlight diversity in early education opportunities, in perspectives on early learning, and in future prospects. What these communities share in common, however, is the significance attached to education by families and children at the start of the twenty-first century as a potential route out of poverty towards personal achievement and greater family prosperity. Among many rural families, education was seen as a potential escape from the hardship of living and labouring in rural economies. Aspirations for children’s education (and children’s own educational aspirations) are linked to poverty levels, but even the poorest households recognise the power of education to transform their children’s lives. The discrepancy between parental aspirations and children’s realistic prospects in the context of current weaknesses within the education systems is very striking.
The challenges for ECCE include building a positive equity agenda, setting clear policy objectives, raising quality standards, building the skills and motivation of teachers and recognising where equity goals can be incompatible with a market-led private system. In short, realising the benefits promised for early childhood, achieving equity and implementing children’s rights requires strong policy engagement, strategic planning and investment, especially if early childhood services are to avoid amplifying inequalities already established early in so many children’s lives.