Third International Early Childhood Action Congress: Quality Beyond Regulations

On 30 June 2020 Gabriela Ramos delivered a keynote at the Third International Early Childhood Action Congress. Find her remarks below.

Thank you, Nathalie.

Dear Minister Melby [Minister of Education and Integration, Norway], Minister Lacombe [Minister of Family, Québec, Canada], Minister Taquet [Secretary of State in charge of Child Protection, Ministry of Solidarities and Health, France], Mr. Hidalgo [President of Ensemble for Early Childhood Education], Excellences,

Ladies and gentleman,

I am delighted to welcome you to the 3rd Early Childhood Action Congress, organised by Ensemble for Education.

The world has changed dramatically since this Congress first met two years ago.  This crisis has indeed become the greatest test to our education and care systems.

Children did not enter the crisis on an equal footing. Already before the crisis, 1 in 7 children across OECD countries grew up in poverty. Far worse for children in immigrant households, for example – with almost half of them lived in poverty in the OECD. The crisis only magnified existing inequalities and will increase risks of creating more vulnerable children, unless adequate long-term measures are put in place by governments and stakeholders.  

What is happening to ECEC and what impact on children?

In many OECD countries[1], regulated ECEC centres were ordered to close, with just a handful of exceptions to provide for children of essential workers. As a result, more than one-third of children under age 3 and almost 90% of children of age 3-5 were thrown out of the ECEC services. And this turned parents into the frontline respondents to children’s care, cognitive, social and emotional development and health.

It has never been easy for any parents to juggle between child care and work. For the most disadvantaged, it’s even more difficult as they cannot telework, their job require physical presence, while affordable ECEC are closed. And their children will suffer most. For example, their parents were less likely to read a story to them [30% less, according to our recent International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS), conducted to England, US and Estonia], which the OECD highlights as critical in developing their socio-emotional and emerging literacy skills.

Then globally, there is this ongoing challenge of the digital divide. During this crisis, not all were able to move online as half of the world’s population still do not have access to internet. Furthermore, girls could lose even more from our reliance on digital tools since they have 11% of access gap compared to boys globally. Even if a home is connected, girls in developing countries cannot even use the internet because they are often busy doing housework [3 times as much time compared to boys and men].

The crisis risks setting back the progress we have made in closing the digital gender divide.

Even if children do have access to digital tools, they might face another set of risks associated with “over-exposure” to internet. Already, the OECD Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study shows that during the crisis, 83% of 5 year-olds in England, Estonia and the United States use digital devices daily or weekly[2]. This could turn children to take an “always-on” lifestyle. Of course, the digital environment provides important opportunities for children’s learning and socialisation, but we need to be mindful of risks, especially if digital technologies are used without proper parental supervision. Even the youngest children can encounter harmful or illegal content, exposed to advertising or make purchases without understanding they are doing so, or inadvertently share personal data that can be used for commercial purposes.

Online bullying is another unwelcome by-product of being over connected. How to address these potential problems is something we are now looking very closely at the OECD with the ongoing revision the OECD Recommendations on the Protection of Children Online.

We will also need to further research the impact of ICT on children’s development and how it can be used in ECE setting [this is one of our G20 proposals].

Children’s mental and physical health should also be protected. We already know that school closure has put children at risk of malnutrition. We’ve all seen the harrowing photographs of cars lined up for miles at food banks in many advanced countries. At any point in time, an average 47 million children under 5 years of age suffer from wasting. With COVID and without free school meals, the WFP estimates show that additional 10 million will be pushed into acute malnutrition.

And what’s most unacceptable and concerning is a spike in domestic violence that could further affect children’s safety and mental health. Sadly, violence against children, and especially girls, is not a new phenomenon – the recent report by WHO[3] revealed that half of the world’s children each year are affected by physical, sexual or psychological violence, suffering injuries, disabilities and death.

This crisis has only worsened the situation due to compounding stress factors that turned aggressors more violent, such as unstable housing [with rising homeless population across OECD countries and over-crowded conditions particularly in Mexico, Latvia and Poland], financial insecurity [1 in 3 across OECD countries financially insecure before the crisis] and job loss [81% of global workforce affected]. We have already seen a surge in the reported case of domestic violence globally [by 30% in France, 40% in the UK, 50% in Brazil and 70% in Chile] and calls to helplines from children suffering violence at home. Some children are struggling with depression, even resulting in attempts at suicide, according to the report published by UNICEF last week.

Countries are doing a lot to address these challenges.

Of course, many countries have taken impressive measures already.

  • Some countries have put food assistance programmes in place.
    • US put in place the Families First Coronavirus Response Act 2020, providing additional funding to food providers like SNAP and the Child Nutrition Programmes.
  • Many services have been moved online to provide tele-consultations to support children and families.
    • In New Zealand, Oranga Tamariki (national children protection justice agency) has developed online resources for parents and carers to help them understand and respond to children’s stress responses.
  • Almost all OECD countries offer childcare options and support with alternative care solutions parents in essential services.
  • Countries are also implementing responses to ensure that families can remain in their dwelling if they struggle to cover rent, mortgage or utility payments due to a job or wage loss.
    • Several countries (i.e., the Slovak Republic and the UK) have introduced temporary deferments of mortgage payments, or temporarily suspended foreclosures (i.e. US) or evictions (i.e., France, Spain, and some Canadian regions and municipalities).
  • Some countries have introduced emergency to give families extra cash.
    • For example, the City of Paris has earmarked an exceptional budget of EUR 3.5 million to support 28 579 Parisian low-income households. Payment rates are based on canteen prices for children, and are paid automatically by the Caisse nationale d’allocations familiales into the bank accounts of households.

These measures are certainly helping to improve the condition for children to grow healthy, however, we need to ensure that these supports continue in the recovery phase and to build a more resilient and inclusive ECEC in place.

Where do we go from here? And how can the OECD help?

Early childhood education and care matters for children’s development. To help countries improve their ECEC services and systems, it is essential to have timely, reliable and comparable international information.

This is exactly why the OECD has started the International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study to put a spotlight on how children are fairing at 5 years of age in terms of their social, emotional and cognitive development. Our first round of study was conducted with England, Estonia and the US covering 7,000 children, teachers and parents.

According to the findings, children who attended ECEC had stronger emergent literacy [13 score points’ difference] and emergent numeracy [26 score points’ difference] than children who did not attend. So, starting behind means staying behind for individual children and for education systems.

In times of greater pressure on government budgets, an OECD assessment like this could highlight the importance of ECEC as an investment, not a cost. We want more countries to join this study (IELS) to build the international benchmark for ECEC.

Putting people at the centre of our response should be another priority. We need to keep supporting the ECEC centres and staff, essential workers, to gain access to temporary unemployment scheme. Indeed, countries have maintained public ECEC settings for essential workers and provided financial support to the privately funded centres to keep the business running. But even Canada, which provided generous support for staff and carers, had the issue of “unevenness” between provinces.

Looking ahead, our focus should also be on how to redress the inequality around access to and affordability of ECEC. Although many governments have done a lot to mitigate the impact on families, these support must continue beyond the crisis because out-of-pocket costs of childcare services often take out a large share of earnings especially for low-paid parents and single mothers [especially in Ireland, Slovak Republic and the UK].[4]

We need to turn this crisis into an opportunity to build a more affordable ECEC so that low-income households [one-third less likely to participate in ECEC] can start to benefit in the post-COVID world.

Local and national government, and civil society have to work together in a coordinated manner to meet higher demands and to identify children in need. We also need international cooperation especially when it comes to cyber risks as we need effective framework to reinforce the ability of cross-border legal and police responses.

Without urgent action now, COVID could destroy the hopes and futures of an entire generation.

Our future depends upon our children and they should be placed at the front and centre of our recovery efforts.

I hope that today’s Conference could create the change that we want.

Thank you.

[1] Except for Sweden and Japan. Federal states like Australia and the US introduced only state level closures of regulated ECEC settings.

[2] OECD (2020), Early Learning and Child Well-being:A Study of Five-year-Olds in England, Estonia, and the United States, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[3] Global Status Report on Preventing Violence Against Children 2020

[4] OECD (2020), Is Childcare affordable ?, Policy Brief on employment, labour and social affairs.

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