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Early childhood education in rural China needs investment

Two-thirds of China’s 90 million children aged 0-6 still live in rural areas and get insufficient early childhood education, said a survey on early childhood development (ECD) released by UNICEF on Thursday.

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The findings include the latest global evidence on neuroscience and showcased how important the first few years of life are for a child’s physical, social and emotional development.

“Early brain development and function is the foundation for learning, behavior and capabilities later in life,” said Prof. Pia Britto, UNICEF’s Senior Global Advisor on ECD, at a press briefing in Beijing.

“Investing in early interventions for the most disadvantaged children is the most effective and cost-effective way for societies to ensure all children develop their full potential,” said Pia.

In 2010, China’s State Council called for an expansion of ECD. Already the national coverage for early childhood care has increased from 35 percent in 2000 to 67.5 percent in 2013.

To meet the target of rolling out universal pre-school education by 2020, the Chinese government has earmarked 50 billion yuan (8.2 billion US dollars) to expand pre-primary education in the poorest and remotest part of the country from 2011-2015.

“These commitments made by the Chinese government demonstrate how important this investment in early childhood care is for the country’s long term development,” said Dr Chen Xuefeng, UNICEF China’s Education Specialist.

ECD is not just an issue the government cares about, but also concerns parents, related professionals and children, said Chen.

“We continue to give priority to building the skills, knowledge and understanding of teachers, health workers as well as parents and grandparents on why these first few years of life are so vital for a child’s longer term development and how through new types of interventions, they can be part of this investment,” said Chen.

Dr Chemba Raghavan, an Education Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific, values the parents’ role, especially father involvement in ECD.

“With the ongoing initiatives of ECD in many areas, parents could reach the ‘belief’ level through community interventions,” said Chemba.

In urban areas, parent involvement is easier to achieve while for the 23 million left-behind children in rural areas, ECD from kindergartens could even barely meet the needs.

The gap between rural and urban areas for young children is likely to expand unless more is done to invest in teacher training and improving standards of care, according to the recent survey on early child care in kindergartens targeting children aged 3-6 years old, conducted in China’s five disadvantaged counties.

Led by the National Institute of Education Sciences and Peking University, the survey indicated that the more investment made in teacher training, the better the outcomes for child development.

Since the pre-school infrastructure has been laid out, the increasing investment in the quality of ECD services will be China’s next plan for the benefit of rural preschoolers.