NORTHAMPTON: Children are the foundation of sustainable development. The early years of a child’s life are crucial not only for individual health and physical development, but also for cognitive and social-emotional development.
Scientific research has shown that the brain grows the most during the first three years of life with neurons forming new connections at an astounding rate of 700-1,000 per second.
This implies that there should be great effort in educating and nurturing the child, making early childhood education critical not only for the development of the individual but the society as a whole.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), the events occurring in the first few years of a child’s life play a vital role in building human capital, breaking the cycle of poverty, promoting economic productivity and eliminating social disparities.
Education has never been a priority for any government in Pakistan. According to the recently published World Development Indicators 2016, approximately 5.6 million children were out of school in 2014 in Pakistan with the net enrolment rate for primary school standing at 73%.
This is much lower than other countries in the South Asian region with even smaller nations like Bhutan achieving net enrolment of 85.6%.
The primary school completion rates for both boys and girls in Pakistan are also much smaller than the South Asian average. If this is the picture of the overall education in the country, what should one expect of early childhood education?
Education indicators: the South Asian picture
Unicef has developed early childhood development indicators through the Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey globally.
For the South Asian region, the index only covers Bhutan at the national level, but also includes Balochistan province in Pakistan and the mid and western regions of Nepal.
It can be used to indicate the progress that has been made in Pakistan on this front. The indicators exhibit the poor state of early childhood education in South Asia in general and Balochistan in particular. Although most children in the age group of 36-59 months have made progress in terms of physical development, on the literacy/numeracy front, their performance has been abysmal.
Only 20.8% of children in the South Asian region are literate. This can be explained by the fact that only 4% of children less than 5 years have access to three or more children’s books whereas 51% have access to other playthings and toys.
This can also be explained by the poor participation of adult males in activities that promote learning and school readiness. Only 3.1% of fathers in Balochistan were documented to be engaged in such activity with their offspring.
Focus on children: the need of the hour
Studies have shown that there is a high correlation between the Early Childhood Development Index and the Human Development Index.
The foundation of human development lies in early childhood development and there must be concerted efforts to improve it so as to have a beneficial impact on all levels of human development.
Currently, wars and conflict situations in the world will further deteriorate the case of early childhood development due to more children falling into the trap of poverty, poor health, high levels of family and environmental stress and abuse. It has been estimated that over 200 million children in the world will not reach their full development potential because of these risk factors. The need for children having a positive and nurturing childhood experience is imperative.
To have effective early childhood development requires multidimensional efforts from the government, society and individual families. Educating people about the importance of early nutrition, significance of quality early learning programmes and health is imperative for a wholesome childhood.
The writer is an economist and ex-central banker
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2016.