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[UNESCO] Report of the UNESCO "World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education"

Japanese Chinese

On September 27-29, 2010, I participated in the "World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education" held in Moscow, Russia, as a member of Japanese government delegation. This is a report of the discussions at the general and individual meetings.

The conference was sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and supported by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA). The Government of Russian Federation and the City of Moscow served as the host country/city. In addition to the delegation from more than 130 countries, many people from international organizations and NGOs participated in the conference. The participants enthusiastically discussed the present situation and the problems of Early Childhood Education for three days.

This is the first world conference to focus on early childhood education. According to the staff of UNESCO, "in the field of education, a number of conferences and much discussion have taken place internationally on school education and lifelong education, but there has not been active discussion on early childhood education. The conference held this time is therefore expected to kindle active discussion in each country." With such an idea, this world conference was held in that hopes that the issues of early childhood education and care would become an important agenda in many countries.

The discussion at the conference revealed that many developed and developing countries have common problems with early childhood education. For example, as referred to in the title of the conference many countries do not know how the government should balance support for the two areas of education and care" in childhood.. Various opinions are also expressed in Japan on the balance between education and childcare, as typified by the issue of the unification of kindergartens and nursery schools.

Above all, the conference presentations stressed that providing high-quality education to all children is an issue related to human rights. In other words, one of the most important purposes of the conference was soliciting international agreement that "the access to education is a basic human right of children and that is necessary for the government of each country and the society as a whole to make efforts to improve early childhood education."

In addition, there was a considerable discussion on how to improve the quality of early childhood education and how the quality should be evaluated. When thinking about the quality of early childhood education, each country has different ideas about whether cognitive aspects (memory, acquisition and expression of knowledge, and concept development) or emotional aspects should be emphasized, and it finds the issue is very complicated. Moreover, as for the evaluation of the quality of education, some countries measure cognitive development by conforming to the so-called "achievement test," while other countries consider such assessment to be inappropriate for understanding the results of approaches toward preschool children. During the discussion, it was pointed out that three aspects: "educational quality," "quality of teachers and other educators," and "quality of programs" should be considered separately when looking at the quality of early childhood education

Before evaluating the content of education, however, there is the problem that early childhood education is not common in many developing countries. In this regard, UNESCO as a sponsor emphasized as their significant achievement that they had agreed to develop the "Child Development Index" based on the Conference discussions. The Index measures the present environment of children in each country and the degree of prevalence of early childhood education, by combining the indices of the mortality rate and low birth weight among children aged under 5 as well as the attendance rate at elementary school. Based on the index established in 1990 by the international NGO, "Save the Children UK," UNESCO will add some necessary items to advance the development of the index in cooperation with the specialists in statistics.

Furthermore, the issue of the transition from kindergarten to elementary school was discussed. It was shown that a phenomenon similar to what is called "the problem of first graders" in Japan is also occurring in Korea. This refers to the increasing number of children who cannot adjust to school life after entering elementary school. Some students do not listen to their teachers, and others walk around the classroom freely. Therefore, teachers are interrupted for a long time during the class. This happens not only in Japan, but also in other countries. In order to deal with such problems, it was pointed out at the conference that providing preparatory early childhood education is necessary in order to facilitate a smooth transition from kindergarten to elementary school.

On the last day of the conference, "The Moscow Framework of Action" was adopted. "The Moscow Framework of Action" confirmed that "the lack of political commitment (to strengthen the support for early childhood education) and public funds, the difficulty in improving early childhood education, and the lack of outside support (such as development assistance) for its improvement" are major problems for today's early childhood education, particularly in the developing countries. In addition, it was pointed out that the promotion of international development assistance by developed countries and international organizations was essential, so that each country would increase financial support for early childhood education in developing countries.

During the conference, the importance of considering early childhood education from such perspectives as the improvement of the quality of basic education particularly in developing countries was pointed out. However, when developed countries including Japan consider the issues of early childhood education in their own country, they must notice a certain gap between the content of the discussion during the conference and the actual situation at home. In that sense, I felt difficulty in discussing a particular topic at an international conference, in which countries with various different situations participate.

For example, the conference this time was entitled "Early Childhood Care and Education." However, it seemed that many participants from developing countries were more likely to discuss the aspect of "care" on the basis of their common reality of poverty and poor sanitary conditions, although they were strongly aware of the importance of improving "education." This clearly reflects the social-economic realities of the developing countries.

Nevertheless, when comparing early childhood education in developed and developing countries, I strongly felt that they had many common issues, such as improving the quality of education; the importance ofevaluation method development; promoting a smooth transition from kindergarten to elementary school; and the lack of cooperation among government agencies. Regardless of whether the country is developing or developed, it was highlighted that the insufficient provision of public funds for the area of early childhood education is a big problem. Since this is a topic of current concern, I felt the need for further discussion on the financial issues of early childhood education both domestically and internationally.

Among thevarious presentations and reports, the keynote speech by Professor Jack P. Shonkoff of Harvard University at the general meeting on the first day of the Conference was extremely impressive. Based on the latest knowledge of brain science, he explained infant/child development in an easily comprehensible manner. What was most impressive was his remark: "it is only in the past 10 years that the discourses of traditional childrearing as practiced in various communities were proved to be scientifically correct". People have understood what they thought it was important instinctively and experientially, and have practiced it in each community. Professor Shonkoff pointed out that today's science plays an important role to prove the rightness of such practices. This indicates that when considering early childhood education and care, we should not always look for the new, but should learn from the experience and knowledge (or wisdom) inherited from each society. However, such experience and knowledge needs to be applied in the way suitable for the children in modern society.

The conference turned out to be extremely productive for me. I listened to discussions about early childhood education from the broad standpoint, and had the chance to exchange opinions with participants from many countries and institutions. In addition, it was a precious opportunity for me to rethink issues of early childhood education based on my specialty in international cooperation in education for developing countries.

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