The first day of the World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education (14th November 2022 at Tashkent) was dedicated to discussing solutions to ECD challenges. Building on momentum of a recent evidence review of the potential role of systems thinking in transforming promotion of ECD at scale, this session highlighted the importance and complexity of combining the diverse components of early childhood care and education (ECCE) into a single system to better meet the needs of children today and to improve their educational and life opportunities for tomorrow. It also highlighted the myriad of systems solutions being developed at the country and global levels, like the Early Childhood Education (ECE) Accelerator Toolkit.
Moderated by Professor Sharon Lynn Kagan of Teacher’s College at Columbia University and including a keynote address by the Honourable Jay Weatherill AO, former Premier of South Australia and the CEO of the Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five initiative, the session featured a panel of government representatives who shared ECCE systems experiences from Tajikistan, Ghana, and Ireland; as well as representatives from UNICEF and the European Commission that provided regional perspectives from Europe and Central Asia and the European Union.
The session speakers emphasized that, when we talk about building systems for ECCE, we are not talking about creating a standard management methodology for all countries. Instead, we are recognizing that systems thinking should be applied to policy and program interventions in early childhood, much the way it has been successfully used in sectors like technology and agriculture. This means working with countries to define their whole approach to young children’s development and learning and then envision how to connect the parts that make up that whole using specific interactions, relationships, and processes including use of data to measure and track systems change.
As we dig deeper into this idea, it’s useful to consider three things that our panelists said during the session in Tashkent.
Education is like a building. You want to start with the most solid foundation possible.John Ntim Fordjour, Deputy Minister for Education, Ghana
Systems are made up of interconnected layers: such as services, policies, community, and culture. Because ECCE systems are often fragmented across these layers and across sectors, efforts to scale up successful programs are often inhibited. Foundational systems that create sustainable linkages are essential to being able to transfer and scale programs from one context to another.
COVID-19 plainly exposed that when ECCE programs function with weak or fragmented systems, they lack the resilience to adapt to changes and shocks. The pandemic coupled with growing incidences of poverty, food insecurity, conflict, war, natural disaster, climate change, and disease has reversed hard-fought progress and is threatening our vision of every child being safe, well-nourished, healthy, happy, and learning.
Building systems is a journey, not a destination.Sharon Lynn Kagan, Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy, Columbia University
We often confound systems with services and programs. In fact, it’s probably accurate to say that the ECD community is still in the process of defining exactly what systems and systems thinking mean to them.
Systems are meant to increase equity, efficiency, and effectiveness within services and programs. This is an important concept to remember now that the global ECCE community has coalesced around the Tashkent Declaration, which affirms that access to at least one year of pre-primary education is a right for all. Strong ECCE systems will allow countries to design and implement population-wide pre-primary education programs as an important ECD element, measure their progress, and make continuous improvements to ensure they meet their goals.
Systems must be dynamic. They should adapt to children and families, not the other way around.Sonia Godinho, Education Specialist, European Commission
An additional challenge comes from our failure to treat early childhood development as a continuum in which care during pregnancy, the first three years, pre-primary education, and primary education are all linked. We need to reframe systems thinking in a way that puts children at the center, recognizing their fundamental value at each stage of childhood instead of considering them to be adults in the making. This will help us conceive systems that optimize development and ensure the well-being of children and their families. The question of applying systems thinking to ECCE is about ensuring the quality and reach of programs and services and attaining the best outcomes that children deserve.
We have much to learn about how to develop and implement resilient, adaptable ECCE systems, as well as how other sectors have taken a systems approach to achieve greater impact. ECDAN is working with Harvard and MCRI to explore how systems thinking might best be applied to ECD, including ECCE, through the combination of a systematic review to determine where systems approach had led to outcomes, key informant interview and thematic and country-based dialogues. Many of these focused on learnings from sectors outside ECD. These different disciplinary and sectoral lenses are insights into how we might accelerate system change toward more equitable global ECD outcomes for all children. Moving forward, we will launch several publications and a webinar series with experts in the field to discuss how systems thinking can unlock new opportunities for young children.
For more questions on the initiative, please reach out to:
Global Technical Lead, ECDAN
Clinician Scientist Fellow, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute