Early Childhood Education (ECE) is most often believed to be restricted to acquiring basic skills. However, it plays a crucial role in the child’s intellectual development and growth. ECE largely incorporates learning through play that helps children get acquainted with new environments and experiences. Apart from developing cognitive and social skills, it contributes to fostering healthy communication with their parents, teachers and peers.
For the uninitiated, early childhood is defined by UNESCO as the period from birth to the age of eight and is considered a time when brain development is at its peak. Early Childhood Education aims at the “holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs”, as per UNESCO’s definition, and is, therefore, considered an important time in children’s lives when they first learn to interact with others as their secondary socialization begins.
Early Childhood Education, however, refers to educational programs, strategies and activities aimed to affect the developmental changes in children by the time they reach elementary school.
Even though early childhood education is highly beneficial for the growing mind, over 175 million children globally are not receiving any form of pre-primary education as per to the UN reports. Pakistan apparently has a better pre-primary enrollment ratio compared to its neighbors in the east including India and Bangladesh. However, the country falls short when it comes to keeping students in the system. In fact, Pakistan happens to have the second-highest number of out-of-school children (OOSC) with an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 not attending school altogether.
Early childhood education has historically been a neglected area within the Pakistani education framework. The deficient public provision has over the years been supplemented with private schools mostly located in urban areas, many of which are not accessible for low-income families.
“Disparities based on gender, socio-economic status, and geography”, stated by UNICEF Pakistan’s website, pose as a major challenge in the provision of education in Pakistan.
According to Human Rights Watch, 11% more girls compared to boys are out of school in Pakistan. The disparity based on gender has several reasons including social norms and a lacking educational infrastructure mostly in the interior regions of all the provinces. UNICEF Pakistan’s data for OOSC clearly states that 58% of girls from the poorest regions in Sindh and a staggering 78% of girls from Balochistan’s similar socio-geographic makeup are not attending school.
The neglect towards ECE in Pakistan can be seen as an important factor for the soaring figures of out-of-school children. ECE programs could help reduce the risk of children dropping out of school early as it instills education-positive behavior in children from a younger age. It would not be unjust to state that ECE is a rather significant investment that a country can make to promote human resource development. Studies have shown that there are long-term positive effects of ECE on employment, labor force participation and earnings. According to an estimate, investing in quality ECE can yield significant returns anywhere from 2-13 dollars per person.
Restrictive education budgets
Unfortunately, Pakistan has had a history of dwindling investment in the education sector with the spending (% of GDP) dropping to the one of the lowest at 2.3% in the fiscal year 2019-20. In 2019, the country ranked 152 out of 189 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) ranking. The reason for Pakistan’s poor performance attributes to its failure at demonstrating any progress in key educational indicators, such as literacy rate, gross enrolment ratio, and expenditure on education, as compared to the adjoining regional territories as detailed in a report titled Education Budget of Pakistan by Pakistan Girls Alliance for Education.
The report further states that, “compared to international benchmarks, the allocated budget for education is lowest as of the agreed targets of 15-20% of the total budget and 4% of the GDP.”
When it comes to early childhood education and primary education affairs, the government has reserved a total of Rs. 2.931 billion for 2020-21, a slight increase from Rs. 2.83 billion for 2019-20.
Since the early 1990s, Pakistan’s education expenditure has experienced many ups and downs. The country experienced a steady increase from 7.89% in 1993 to 11.75% in 1997 before dropping to about 8% in the year 2000. The country’s education budget saw a definite boom with it reaching a good 15.45% in 2007. Over the years each successive government tried to sustain the budget with most years seeing it above 10%. In 2017, the percentage of spending was closer to 15% at 14.54%. However, in the same year countries such as Bhutan, Uzbekistan and Ghana where spending 24.04%, 23.03%, 20.10%, respectively.
Lack of funding is perhaps the only reason why Pakistan has not been able to develop a proper ECE system. It was only in the 1970s that the concept of pre-primary education was introduced with ‘katchi’ classes. However, it took almost 30 years for these initial school-years to become a part of the national education policy.
The current government has started investing in the pre-primary education affairs in the country.
Benefitting from a perspective change
Countries across the world have recognized and realized the long-term benefits of ECE for children, which include language development, improved health behaviors, and high economic returns. Several academic studies have endorsed the benefits of ECE.
A study of more than 60,000 children published by Boston College, Lynch School of Education found that by the age of three, ” language improvement of low-income children attending early education and care has led to a significant narrowing of the gaps in the language skills between low-income and high-income children”
Another study published by the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in 2011 established that intensive education intervention starting in infancy leads to better health behaviors in young adults. One of the benefits included lower depression rates in teenagers.
An extensive study also found that people who participated in ECE were less likely to be on welfare as adults compared to those who had not received any early childhood education.
However, the overall effectiveness of an early childhood program remains dependent upon several factors including quality staff, an appropriate environment, proper grouping practices, consistent scheduling, and parental involvement, according to research.
Pakistan, with its few public schools, limited resources and the issue of ghost-teachers benefitting from the government payroll is a telltale sign that the country has a long road ahead to making education available to all children out-of-school.
An international study led by Sharon Lynn Kagan, an early childhood education professor, compiled in “The Early Advantage 1: Early Childhood Systems That Lead by Example,” examined the top-performing education systems in the world. Several countries have been studying to outline how they have successfully structured early learning systems. Among these include Singapore where it was found that consolidating Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) into one autonomous agency increased the focus on ECEC. In South Korea, however, the study established that ECEC programs were incentivized to encourage its population to procreate as “a looming population cliff derived from persistent low fertility rates.”
England, Australia, and Hong Kong are the three other systems studied in depth by Kagan and her fellow researchers, which offer a lot of insight to other countries with lagging ECEC programs, including Pakistan.
The strategies for developing ECEC programs may vary depending on each country’s specific needs, but there is a constant – they all view ECE as an investment with major returns.
The way ahead for Pakistan
Undoubtedly efforts are being made by organizations to make education accessible to children across Pakistan with a focus on providing learning and livelihood opportunities for youths and adults, and rehabilitating vulnerable groups including those forced into child labor. However, a massive improvement in investment and funding by the government is the only way forward.
It is absolutely crucial that Policymakers, teachers, parents and other concerned parties are sensitized to the importance and significance of ECE.
Even more important is making a clear distinction between pre-primary and primary education. Preschools are as important to a child’s education process as any other level of schooling. “Adequate funds should be allocated, released and optimally utilized for the implementation of ECE programs, plans and projects at all levels: i.e. national, provincial and district,” as stated in a paper titled Early Childhood Education in Pakistan: an international slogan waiting for national attention, 2011.
Pakistan needs more public schools with better facilities and improved infrastructure. The most common reason cited by parents for not sending their children to school, especially in the more remote regions, is the distance a child may have to travel to get to school.
Another important factor is poverty. Parents from the lower strata of society often deal with the question of feeding children or educating them. Pakistan needs more public schools with better facilities and improved infrastructure, so that education becomes more accessible.
Furthermore, corruption is so deeply embedded within the education system that even with the current government’s anti-corruption rhetoric and focus on organizational accountability, improvements are far fewer if any.
There are daunting problems that need to be resolved in order to strengthen the education system as a whole. Nonetheless, early childhood education for all children irrespective of gender and socio-economic status must now become a focal discussion because not only can it enhance children’s interest in learning, but can improve their cognitive health, as proven through research.
The government must make an organized effort to retain and enroll children in schools across the provinces and must increase its educational expenditure at the earliest, only then can there hope for Pakistan truly moving forward towards improvements in the provision of Early Childhood Education. It is high time to make an investment in the future of our children and by extension that of the country.