In the early months of 2020, governments across the globe stood at their podiums to tell their populations that a new and dangerous communicable disease was forcing them to shut their borders and lockdown their communities. The implications were staggering – trade and economic activity ground to a halt, and there was an almost overnight evolution in how we live and operate in our societies.
But one of the most deleterious effects of this unprecedented challenge was the impact on education. Learning, at all levels, was affected. From toddlers to teenagers, postgraduates to adult learners, everyone in education felt the pinch.
Parents suddenly had to juggle work with caring full-time for children and young people who had been cut off from their friends and the well-thought-out education structures built over several decades.
In particular, there was a severe impact on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) - where children gain critical social, emotional and academic skills that set the foundation for all later learning experiences. If this is not carefully managed, we will, unfortunately, see the ripples of these adverse effects continuing throughout the learning experience of this cohort of children.
That is why, the Commonwealth has a laser-sharp focus on the issue of ECCE. We designed our Early Childhood Care and Education Toolkit to support member countries with existing and emerging challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Developed through extensive consultation with Commonwealth experts and international partners, the toolkit provides policy recommendations, advice and resources to strengthen early childhood education programmes. It is particularly useful because it focuses on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 4.2 on equal access to quality pre-primary education - ensuring that the poorest, most remote and marginalised are not left behind.
The toolkit was one of the areas of focus in a recent webinar on strengthening governance for effective early childhood education and development in Africa. Jointly hosted by the Commonwealth Secretariat, the African Union Continental Education Strategy for Africa’s ECED Cluster, the Africa Early Childhood Network, and the Institute of Early Childhood Development of Seychelles, the webinar attracted participants from governments, development partners, civil society organisations, academic institutions and service providers.
At the webinar, I highlighted the importance of good governance and accountability to the establishment of strong early childhood care and development systems that guarantee the provision of sustainable and scalable services to all children.
I also had the opportunity to brief participants about how our Early Childhood Care and Education Toolkit can guide countries to establish and strengthen enabling environments, which can accelerate positive ECCE outcomes such as healthy social interaction.
Early this year, we piloted the toolkit in Kenya and Ghana. The toolkit received widespread praise on its relevance to the current evolving situation as well as constructive feedback on enhancing multi-sectoral and coordinated approach in devolved ECCE settings. Taking on this feedback, we are currently updating the toolkit and will be making it available to our member countries by this September.
More importantly, at the webinar, I heard the experiences of international organisations, such as the World Bank Group and regional and national institutions. This gave an invaluable insight into the shared challenges and useful innovations and best practices. By the end of the virtual discussion, we had a clearer vision of how we need to proceed on our quest to redevelop ECCE services after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The overarching message was the urgent need to advocate for a systems approach to ECCE service delivery. This should include key elements such as robust and effective policies; the involvement and leadership of decision-makers; financing, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms; a multi-sectoral approach; and coordination and strategic partnerships between international agencies, civil society and public and private sectors.
Undoubtfully, it has been a tough year for early childhood care and education, but a collaborative approach can help us stay on track and progress towards sustainable development goal 4 for quality education.