The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) incorporate a focus on Early Childhood Development (ECD) for children under the age of six. Identifying ECD as a specific target has lifted it from a relatively low-priority objective into the coveted space of a prioritized international commitment that donors will support and monitor for at least the next fifteen years. ECD advocates struggled for decades to give this area of development policy prominence in international discourse, and may see this significant achievement as an overdue acknowledgment of ECD’s proven contribution to supporting lifelong learning goals alongside numerous others related to poverty, environment, and responsible citizenship.
The decision to prioritize ECD stems from compelling and consistent neuroscientific evidence over the last few decades, which has confirmed that 90 percent of brain growth is completed by age eight. Furthermore, the brain’s growth and neural architecture is determined not only by physiological or genetic factors, but also significantly by the child’s early cognitive environment. With over 40 percent of children under six located in marginalized communities, this social equity gap begins early in life. Evidence across countries demonstrates the potential of quality ECD programs to narrow, if not close, this gap by providing children with the required support.
With most countries having signed up to support the SDGs, each is accountable for achieving a time-bound target by 2030. They are required to plan, provide for, and monitor progress on this target, which has been articulated as follows:
Target 4.2: “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.”
This target, in turn, is supported and monitored by two indicators:
Global Indicator 4.2.1: Proportion of children under five years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning, and psychosocial well-being, by sex.
Global Indicator 4.2.2: Participation rate in organized learning (one year before the official primary entry age), by sex.
While these fundamental indicators are significant, the complexity involved in implementing and monitoring them within the constraints of extant institutional structures raises important and challenging questions.
Who owns ECD? The challenge of convergence and coordination across sectors.
Unlike an educational or a health target, which is uni-dimensional or uni-sectorial, ECD aims for holistic and integrated development spanning sectors and developmental stages. This concept of integration is conceptualized laterally—across health, nutrition, education, and child protection domains—and vertically along the developmental continuum from one stage to the next. This division rests on the understanding that learning begins at birth and that a child’s development is a continuous and cumulative process, with a great deal of synergy across domains.
While sound, the concept faces implementation challenges. For instance, national governments and international agencies supporting these indicators are structurally and administratively organized in distinct sector-specific verticals that often do not communicate. ECD may be one department’s assigned responsibility, but this target cannot be achieved in isolation. To further complicate matters, no single division has the hierarchical advantage over another to elicit this required collaboration.
India’s renowned Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), the world’s largest integrated program for children under six, clearly demonstrates the significant coordination challenges in systematically reaching children across sectorial inputs. For instance, discontinuity exists between the ICDS preschool education and the primary education curricula within a single school system. Furthermore, the ICDS center and the school often do not communicate, even when located in proximity to one another. A recent consultation between international agencies’ program officers from South Asian countries also highlighted this trend as a major challenge. The lack of convergence limits ECD’s scope and effectiveness; thus, despite the investment, changes do not lead to the desired impact stated in Target 4.2. The challenge, therefore, is determining who will own this cross-sectorial ECD target; and who will plan for it, monitor it, and take accountability.
Does ‘integrated approach’ mean a single window delivery of all services?
India models its ICDS on a single window delivery design of its six services so that a single ECD center, located in proximity to marginalized communities, provides each one—including health, nutrition, and preschool education. Single service providers deliver these services in cooperation with health personnel. Yet, little convergence exists between health and nutrition services and primary education, which are each run by a different administration or ministry. Given that each requires certain sector-specific expertise, this single window/single provider approach tends inevitably to dilute the delivery quality, while also overburdening the frequently underpaid provider. The issue, thus, is determining if integration necessarily requires unified delivery services, or rather, if it should simply ensure that all six services reach children through their respective providers, with the required expertise.
Who defines ECD quality?
As an indicator, the concern of quality is specific to preschool education. The Early Childhood Education theory recommends a developmentally appropriate curriculum at the preschool stage, which is play-based and caters to children’s overall development and school preparation. Recent evidence suggests that formal teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic at this stage is detrimental to children’s development. In reality, across South Asian countries, preschool programs tend to teach alphabets and numbers by rote and repetition, imitating common practices of primary schools. However, educators continue to follow these detrimental practices, as they correspond with parents' desires. Most parents, in the absence of alternative methods and within a context that undervalues play, consider this method a ‘good’ education. As private investment in this unregulated sub-sector expands across countries, the curriculum becomes even more market driven and less professional. Furthermore, as affluent parents move to private preschools, these programs serve as models of quality education; thus, developmentally appropriate curriculum has fewer proponents.
How can these challenges be addressed?
While these challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable. Cross-sectoral convergence and coordination is possible if the nodal responsibility for ECD is allocated to a higher administrative level. For instance, the office of the Prime Minister or Ministry of Finance would have the authority to oversee collaboration between concerned departments. While planning and monitoring needs to be coordinated, implementation must be sector specific with the required expertise. Each sector could plan for ECD within its mandate and contribute to this coordinated plan. Outreach programs for parent education and the demonstration of good practices in ECD, within an effective regulatory system, are imperative to controlling the quality of demand and to ensuring accountability.
There is no debate as to the merits of an integrated ECD during foundational years, particularly for children from marginalized communities. The challenges lie largely in the domain of implementation, due to vertical administrative structures that tend to operate in isolation, the lack of outcome-oriented and comprehensive planning of service delivery, and above all, a frequent discrepancy between what the children need and what the community wants for them. Moving forward, officials should learn from these existing challenges and adopt a more pragmatic approach to address them by making institutional arrangements more conducive for convergence and coordination. They should also address issues of quality of demand, which may inherently impact the quality of supply.
Dr. Venita Kaul is currently Professor Emerita, Education, and Executive Chairperson of the Advisory Committee of the Center for Early Childhood Education and Development at Ambedkar University Delhi. She was previously Director of the School of Education Studies and the Founding Director of the Center for Early Childhood Education and Development. Prior to these positions, she worked for a long stint in The World Bank as Senior Education Specialist and Professor, as well as Head of the Department of Preschool and Elementary Education at the National Council of Educational Research and Training in New Delhi, India.