Early childhood is the most effective time to ensure that all children develop to their full potential. The returns on investment in early child development are substantial.
It is largely in understanding this that Arne Duncan, secretary of state for the US, once pithily argued that "providing a quality education to all children is not just a moral obligation, but an economic imperative. This is both the civil rights issue of our generation and the economic foundation of our future."
Early learning experiences that help build resilience, social skills and the ability to keep learning have current and future social and economic benefits for everyone - children, families, employers and society. The success with which young children establish relationships with others will affect whether they effectively walk through the pathways to competence when they move into the middle childhood and their adolescent years.
Yet, an estimated 250 million children who attend primary school in developing countries are struggling to read even basic words, as most of them joined primary school without a pre-primary program.
In Ethiopia, the provision of childhood education has gained little attention, whereas the government seems committed to ensuring access to education for all. There were around 3,580 kindergartens in 2011/12, of which Addis Abeba hosted nearly a thousand.
The national Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) for pre-school was about 5.2pc in 2011/12. An increase of just one percentage point was made between 2008/09 and 2011/12.
In absolute terms, out of 7.5 million children aged from four to six years, less than 400,000 had access to a kindergarten program. Compared with the Sub-Saharan African average, which was 17pc in 2008,Ethiopia's performance is sluggish. Besides, converging the ever-increasing urban-rural inequality, as well as inequality among children from different income groups in urban centers, seems unattainable, at least in the coming few years.
A report by Young Lives - an international research project - shows that children who have attended pre-school achieve better results. It is found that eight-year-old children who have attended pre-school scored 43.7pc higher in vocabulary tests and 51.1pc higher in cognitive tests.
However, pre-primary education service provider are modelled on a primary instructional approach. Many parents see it as the most appropriate approach to preparing the child for later schooling.
In reality, low awareness on how to implement the program and the limited attention given in governing the programs predominate. Moreover, the reliance of government on non-governmental providers and a lack of strong regulation and integrated governance results in low quality childhood education.
The Ethiopian government and partner organisations developed the Early Childhood Care & Education Policy in 2010. Although too late, it can be taken as an important advancement in policy development.
The policy was set up to "ensure all children had the right to a healthy start in life; be nurtured in a safe, caring and stimulating environment and develop to their full potential". It was founded on four major pillars: parental education, health and early stimulations (prenatal to three years), pre-schools (four to six years) and non-formal school readiness.
The pre-school service delivery mode detailed in the strategic operational plan reflects that non-governmental institutions are those who are in charge. For the last 22 years, the public-private partnership in this area could not result in significant improvement.
The private sector is also unable to deliver the promised early childhood care and education services. It rather favoured the urban centres and the well-to-dos. Neither did the government ensure a child's right to preschool education.
I would argue that the government ought to be directly involved in expanding preschool services in all parts of the country. These include, among others, the construction of preschool centres, providing play materials and other necessary facilities, and strengthening and expanding preschool training and education programs in higher education.
It is unwise to think success in primary education can come without an effective preschool system. So far, however, the government's role is limited to regulatory and related issues. But even this has not been effectively realised.
There are multiple reasons why the government should be involved directly. The policy framework, in its prefaces, reads "the government of Ethiopia recognises the importance of early childhood care and education as a critical period that requires due attention and a great deal of investment". However, on the ground, the recognition has not materialised as the government has limited its role to regulating and creating conducive investment.
The private sector and other non-government institutions by no means replace the government's role in public service delivery. Rather, they bridge the gap, as the government may not address all of the needs of children in the country.
The experience of leaving preschool care to non-governmental actors has not brought about significant change so far. The coverage is very low, even by sub-Saharan African standards; and the quality has been subject to criticism.
Public preschool centres shall be established and furnished to ensure equity among children in the rural and urban areas. Furthermore, children from poor households have been abandoned and only a small proportion of them have access to faith-based, non-governmental and other non-formal pre-primary programs.
Here is where the social justice that every child has the right to education, as indicated in the Constitution and other international conventions, fails to happen. This is even though public preschool centres should be a showcase in designing relevant and appropriate programs.
Laxity in incorporating pre-primary programs in initiatives, such as the General Education Quality Improvement Programme (GEQIP) - which benefits primary schools, secondary schools, teachers training colleges and universities - adds to the pain. The preschool programs would have benefited more, had it been one of the components of the quality improvement framework. The role of government in negotiating funding partners to incorporate preschool education would have been instrumental.
Many developing countries have preschool programs in their higher education training system. In Ethiopia, what is common is to see departments and programs established without any feasibility studies.
As a result, the country lacks experts in the preschool area. The people who are engaged in the area are either from a health, education or sociology background.
If preschool care and education is to be effective,Ethiopia needs a training program at higher institutions to fill the gap in experts and pre-school teachers. I do not see any rationale why pre-school teachers should not be trained at a Bachelor's and Master's level to serve at federal, regional and local institutions.
High quality early education programs create an atmosphere suitable for engaging adult and child interactions and fostering early learning by promoting children's initiative and inquiry. Thus, government involvement in preschool care and education provision allows other partners to work on quality, rather than trying to address the coverage.
Equivalently, early care calls for public investment - just like what happens to primary education. Abandoning it is like building a house on poor foundations, leaving it to a future that is not guaranteed.
Fikadu Nigussa He Can Be Reached At Nigussaf@yahoo.com - a Lecturer At the Ethiopian Civil Service University (ecsu).