The earliest opportunities

New neurological research has confirmed the importance of early education. Now initiatives around the world are being developed to harness this budding cognitive power

For far too long, early childhood has been frequently neglected, under-funded and crucially misunderstood by policymakers and governments around the world, but the potentially enormous benefits of investing in the early years of a child’s life are finally being recognised.

A good example is Cuna Mas, an integrated child development and early learning government programme in Peru, which aims to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds under the age of three develop their cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills.

Currently the programme is providing childcare and home visiting services for more than 60,000 children in some of Peru’s poorest districts. What is striking, however, is that the programme is organised according to child development guidelines that would not look out of place in the world’s richest countries.

Cuna Mas offers a potential model for other developing countries seeking to invest in early education and childcare. But it is not unique. In neighbouring Chile, for example, the government of President Michelle Bachelet has established Chile Crece Contigo (“Chile is growing with you”), an integrated early childhood development programme that brings together health and education agencies.

Its aim is fourfold: to monitor expectant mothers and children; to identify the risk factors likely to impede children’s development; to ensure access to quality crèche care for babies and toddlers under the age of two; and to provide access to nursery education for children from low-income families aged two and three.

“The Chile Crece Contigo programme identifies and helps children with disabilities and those who live in high-risk neighbourhoods. That comprehensive approach really seems to work,” says Pia Rebello Britto, Senior Adviser on Early Childhood Development for the global children’s development agency, Unicef.

What is particularly impressive about Peru’s Cuna Mas programme is that it is based on the latest knowledge gained from neuroscience. Over the past decade or so, medical scientists have made vast strides in their understanding of how the human brain develops in early childhood. This in turn has generated numerous development studies examining ways of maximising children’s potential in the early years.

The loss of human potential in the first five years of life is great. We are losing about one third of our world human capital because children are now surviving but failing to thrive 

Pia Rebello Britto, Senior Adviser on Early Childhood Development, Unicef

“If we look at how we learn and examine the brain closely, what we see is that most of our abilities to grasp the competencies and capacities of language, communication and cognition all peak by the age of five or six. That means that there are sensitive windows of opportunity during which certain parts of the brain are rapidly growing,” says Dr Rebello Britto. 

The scientific arguments are supported by a growing number of economists who see increased funding for childcare and education in the early years as a smart investment. They argue that it offers sustainable returns in the form of improved learning and earning potential for individuals and in doing so reduces the burden on health, criminal justice and social protection systems.

One of the biggest advocates for early years investment is Unicef. It argues that while decreased mortality, relative improvements in nutrition and increased primary school enrolment have resulted in real advances in children’s life chances since the United Nations set its ambitious Millennium Development Goals at the turn of the century, millions of children are still failing to reach their full potential.

One in three children under the age of five in developing countries – an estimated 200 million worldwide – fail to develop as they should, says the organisation. These stark facts are behind a growing campaign to refocus the UN’s Millennium Goals to increase the emphasis on providing good quality care and education in early childhood.

As the clamour grows for greater government investment, a crucial role is also being played by philanthropic organisations and charities. Among them is UAE philanthropic organisation Dubai Cares, which is involved in primary education programmes in 31 countries, including a US$1.7m project to support 7,000 vulnerable four- to six-year-olds in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The earliest opportunities
Adult attention is considered vital to early education at the Cuna Mas project in Peru

According to Dr Rebello Britto, financial assistance from major donors are of key importance because they support innovative, high-quality early childhood programmes that have potential to become models for countries all over the world. Their emphasis on funding quality initiatives is particularly important as the international community begins to re-focus its global development goals to help millions of disadvantaged children realise their full potential.

“When the Millennium Development Goals were being drafted, one of the biggest problems was high rates of infant, under-five mortality, and so it was a priority to find ways of reducing preventable deaths, and we tackled that.

“Now more children are surviving but they are not thriving. Because of that, the loss of human potential in the first five years of life is great. We are losing about one third of our world human capital because these children are now surviving but failing to thrive.

“If we are serious about addressing this loss, we need to focus on making early childhood central to the next set of global development goals. Early childhood development has to be a key focus.”