Taking quality early learning to scale

The foundations for all future learning and development are formed in the first years of life. That is why quality early learning – through interaction, play and exploration – is crucial not only to children themselves, but to society as a whole.

There is a strong global movement for expanding early learning, ideally as part of an integrated range of services to meet young children’s needs holistically. Early learning encompasses positive parenting, early stimulation, nutrition and health. Evidence shows, however, that quality can suffer when early learning programmes are taken to scale. Disadvantaged children are often left out.

Our goal of bringing early learning to scale focuses on programmes with the proven potential to enable learning from birth, especially among disadvantaged children – home visiting, responsive parenting, and preschool.

Scaling early learning is a goal in six of our country strategies (Brazil, Peru, the Netherlands, Israel, India and Tanzania) and in our outreach to Roma children in the European region. Our focus differs from place to place, as do the challenges.

Progress on Early Learning (2013)

Despite the strong social and economic case for preschool, responsive parenting and childcare programmes, there are hundreds of millions of children around the world still unreached. The Bernard van Leer Foundation aims to take to scale, or accelerate the mass expansion of, proven approaches that combine these types of programmes with other services – such as health, nutrition and social protection – in order to deliver an integrated package that puts children on the path to learning from birth.

In the six countries where we focus on taking quality early learning to scale, there has been significant progress in the area of policy change and the development of demonstration and training projects that can serve as models for scaling up. The Foundation’s partners contributed to the creation of new public policies to scale early learning programmes in five countries. These policies – if fully implemented – have the potential to provide early learning services to 14 million young children each year.

Going forward, the Foundation and partner organisations will support the implementation of these new policies.

Monitoring progress on Early Learning

Ensuring early learning policies reach the most disadvantaged

We measure progress towards our goal of taking quality early learning to scale by tracking four indicators. Below you will find a summary of what we have achieved and learned for each indicator since the start of our strategic plan in 2010, along with remaining challenges.

None of this progress would have been possible without the professionalism, knowledge and commitment of our various project partners. While it is not possible to credit each individual contribution, some specific examples are highlighted in these pages.

Indicator 1: Increase access for young children to early learning services, preferably integrated services

As of 2013, approximately 910,000 young children across five countries are accessing services through the implementation of new early childhood development policies. Across six countries, the Foundation has supported partners to design and implement demonstration and training projects reaching an additional 53,000 young children.

Rather than trying to establish new coalitions, the Foundation and partners have had the most influence in countries where existing coalitions of advocates on other issues have been motivated to take up the cause of young children’s needs too – an example being the passing of a national law on mother tongue-based early education in India.

Indicator 2: Change parent and professional behaviour to increase the amount of time spent engaging young children

Progress on this indicator has come through a combination of demonstration and training projects that include capacity building for 15,079 administrators, volunteers, professionals and para-professionals who work with cohorts of parents and children to encourage more frequent and higher-quality interaction.

Although most evaluations of these projects are not complete, some preliminary findings suggest that they are having the intended effects: demand for children’s books is up in Arab communities in Israel; parents are reporting greater play time with infants in Peru; more children are going to preschool in Tanzania; and teachers trained by our partner organisation People’s Rural Education Movement in India are scoring higher than regular preschool centres in creating interactive classrooms.

Indicator 3: Increase the number of competent professionals/para- professionals serving young children

Of the 15,079 people referred to in indicator 2 above, 90% had no significant prior experience in early learning.

One challenge reported by partner organisations is that official standards of qualification for early learning workers can stand in the way of training-up professionals from other sectors, such as health workers, who are competent and familiar with the communities but who lack formal education. We are meeting this challenge by advocating for the adjustment of standards and through the introduction of alternative qualification schemes.

Indicator 4: Improve learning outcomes

There is suggestive evidence that our programming on scaling early learning is having an impact on children’s learning outcomes, which is the ultimate aim. For example, a study of support to mother tongue-based, multilingual preschool centres in tribal districts of Odisha, India, has found that children in these centres are performing at a higher level in language development, maths skills and school readiness, as well as showing lower levels of stunting, than children at centres where the teacher does not speak their native language. This is true despite the fact that the mothertongue centres often have teachers with fewer formal qualifications, fewer years of teaching experience and poorer classroom infrastructure.

However, this indicator cannot truly be measured until children across a range of demonstration projects – some of which are in their early stages – have reached the third grade and are assessed through national testing.

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