A Crisis in Early Childhood Education

By Dr. Sheldon Shaeffer | Tuesday, 15 December 2015

In most education systems in the world, one entity (e.g., the Ministry of Social Welfare) establishes desired outcomes or development standards for children in daycare centres, designs a general curriculum and activities to achieve these outcomes, and trains facilitators in the approaches necessary to achieve them.  Another entity, often the pre-school unit of the Ministry of Education, does the same for kindergarten – outcomes, curriculum, pedagogy; and yet another, the Ministry’s primary school directorate, does the same for the early grades.

But the results of each of these efforts are usually neither seamless nor continuous: the standards and expected outcomes don’t follow the logical progression of child development; the curricula do not intersect (e.g., the last week of kindergarten does not at all resemble the first week of Grade 1); and approaches used to deliver this curriculum – even the language of instruction – are often radically different, essentially child-centred and play-based in the early years, and teacher-centred and rote-based in primary school.  The immediate result is confusion and a very difficult transition for the children, especially for children with even minor developmental delays and for those from marginalised groups who do not have the supportive family and home environment found in more advantaged groups.

Ultimately many teachers of the early grades, with large classes and without the specialised training needed to deal with early learning and the range of their pupils’ individual needs, focus on the strong and neglect the weak – and so the latter don’t learn to read and can’t do basic mathematics (which more and more early grade achievement tests are showing) and are then slowly pushed out of an education system unable and/or unwilling to adapt to their individual needs.

This crisis in early childhood development and early learning – a powerful determinant of the current increase of educational and social-economic disparities found in so many countries of the world – demands both more focused research on its causes and consequences and more specific interventions to mitigate its worst effects.  In relation especially to education, these include research on:

  • adolescent and parent education programmes concerning what they now teach – and could teach – in regard to the early cognitive and linguistic development of young children
  • the process of transition experienced by young children from the home to informal daycare centres, to often less informal kindergartens/pre-schools, and to the early grades of formal primary schools in relation to the desired development standards/competencies, content, and suggested pedagogy of each of these types of early learning programmes; this should include who is mandated to develop these programmes and how and where the relevant practitioners (daycare workers and pre-school/primary school teachers) are trained
  • how early literacy is taught (or not), from pre-literacy to literacy mastery (including in mother tongue); this could include how kindergarten and primary school teacher trainees are trained in literacy teaching, the content of the literacy curricula and syllabi, what approach (if any) – e.g., phonetic or whole word – is promoted by the country’s Ministry of Education, what kinds of teachers are appointed to the early grades, whether any relevant in-service training is provided in literacy teaching, etc.

After literally years of debate, the new set of Sustainable Development Goals includes one target (4.2) of critical importance to early childhood development: “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”  Linked to the Goals is a final set of draft indicators including two which reflect the issues raised above:

4.2.1: Percentage of children, under 5 years of age, who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being

4.2.2: Participation rate in organized learning (1 year before official primary entry age) for all countries.

It is only fit and appropriate that this region’s future research agenda is designed to help achieve this target.


Sheldon Shaeffer, the former Chief of Education in UNICEF and former Director of UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, has a range of research interests including early childhood development, language use in education, inclusive education (broadly defined), and teacher development. 

The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

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