Early Childhood Development (ECD) is the foundation to transform societies and generations. A good foundation starts right from conception, and makes a difference throughout a person’s life, and gives the next generation a better start. Educated, healthy and skilled people participate in, and contribute to the financial and social wealth of their societies. Early Childhood Development forms the basis of intelligence, personality, social behavior, and capacity to learn and nurture oneself as an adult. The years starting from conception to 8 years are not only critical for brain development, but also indispensable for the child’s holistic (cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and language) development, provided that they are nurtured in a manner that provides them with responsive care, nourishing nutrition and good health, quality early learning opportunities, safety and protection. These are all dimensions that scientific research has found to be crucial for laying sound foundations for future adult health and productivity.
Pakistan is a signatory to the SDGs and is committed to achieving them by 2030 and achieving SDGs is interlinked with ECD. Yet, the ground realities in Pakistan present a bleak picture with regard to child health, nutrition, protection, early stimulation and opportunities for early learning. With 42% children under the age of five stunted, 31%under-weight, 14%wasted and 13% pre-school age children deficient in Vitamin A, Pakistan is ranked 28th highest country out 136 countries in stunting. The country loses nearly US$ 3billion on GDP to Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Children who are undernourished from conception to age two are at high risk for impaired cognitive development which adversely affects the individual’s learning ability, the efficiency of the country’s investment in education, skills development, national productivity and development (Nutrition at a Glance in Pakistan by World Bank).
To address the situation, Pakistan has taken some key steps to align the targets particularly in health and education sector with the SDGs. One of the steps in the right direction is the Vision Pakistan 2025. The first pillar of Pakistan Vision 2025 sets the target of 100% enrollment and completion of primary education, a task that cannot be accomplished without providing a head start to children through strategic ECD interventions (Government of Pakistan 2014). The federal and provincial governments have taken a number of steps to align their ECD targets with SDGs and education sector plans, aiming at providing good quality ECD services to all children from age 4 onwards in the country through institutionalising Early Childhood Education (ECE). Some provinces have developed ECE Policies and Strategies, allocating adequate resources; however, implementation has yet to be seen. The country as a whole has still to go a long way to provide 100% access to ECD services to all children from conception to age 8. The biggest challenge is that ECD has not yet been recognised as part of formal public sector education in Pakistan and the term ECD is only used in private sector. The National Education Policy 2009 and 2017(yet to be notified) has only got a section on ECE, with some policy guidelines for achieving universal access to ECE in all public and private schools in ten years. However, the policy misses the important role of the first 1,000 days in a child’s development and, instead, focuses only on children aged 4-5 years in pre-school education enrolling only 37% children(age 3-5).
To bring the agenda of ECD at the forefront of planning and policy formulation and to promote this key theme in the country, many key stakeholders at national level such as the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, Allama Iqbal Open University and Rupani Foundation organised two conferences on Early Childhood Care & Education (ECCE) in 2017 & 2018 consecutively in close collaboration with UNICEF, UNESCO, Open Society Foundation, Plan International Pakistan, JICA and other development partners. Both these conferences had full patronage of the President of Pakistan and relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Health and Planning Commission.
Following the recommendations of the first conference, the National Curriculum for ECE was reviewed, updated, changed the term ECE into Early Childhood Care & Education(ECCE) and notified. Learning materials and text-books based on the revised curriculum were developed and sent to schools. The first conference recommendations were presented to ECD stakeholders in all the provinces with the financial support from Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI) for further deliberation on the issues and gaps in ECD sector in the country. Around 300 stakeholders from the provinces and ICT deliberated upon the recommendations and proposed policy guidelines. The same were presented in the second conference for the information and endorsement of the conference participants.
The second conference also emphasised the need for an independent multi-sector policy and curriculum from conception to age 8. Further delays in such a policy would mean depriving millions of children and future generations from better opportunities in life. The Planning Commission of Pakistan (PCP) has recently taken some key initiatives in this regard which include the formation of a National Task Force (NTF) ECD to develop this much needed policy. The NTF is comprised of representatives of all the relevant ministries at the national level and departments from provinces, including education, health, Scaling-Up Nutrition, child protection, nutrition, ECD experts, and representatives of UN agencies. Terms of References for this NTF have been developed and notified. A dedicated resource person has started working with the Technical Working Group under the NTF on a mapping exercise on ECD in Pakistan.
To keep the momentum of policy advocacy and awareness, Rupani Foundation and Pakistan Alliance for Early Childhood (PAFEC), in collaboration with the Karakorum International University, World Learning, Aga Khan Development Network, Allama Iqbal Open University, Hasho Foundation, BRAC Pakistan, key donors and a number of other ECD stakeholders organised a two-day seminar on ECD (September 10 – 11, 2018) in Gilgit. The ‘Transforming Society through Early Childhood Development’ Seminar brought together policy makers, focal persons from the government line departments and civil society organisations, ECD experts & practitioners, researchers, academicians, entrepreneurs, community representatives and donors who deliberated upon the transformative power of ECD and how it can be channelised to have a healthy and inclusive society. The Seminar came up with some key recommendations from which the organisers developed a detailed action plan aiming at working on the short-term targets before the next conference and developing plans for the long-term targets.
Based on the learning and the outcomes from the two national conferences and the Gilgit Seminar, the organisers are now planning to hold the International Conference on ECD in Pakistan in 2019. The two-day International Conference will feature an opening session, plenaries, and a closing session, exhibition of workable ECD Models focusing on multi-sector approach to promote holistic ECD from conception to 8 in the country. The conference will bring together over 500 participants, including legislators and policy makers, responsible for health, nutrition, child protection, education and social welfare, ECD experts from national and international level, practitioners, researchers, donors, academicians and parent representatives to deliberate on draft policies and legislation to evolve an integrated, multi-sector approach, and how to operationalise it to promote holistic ECD in the country from conception to age 8.