WINIFRED OGBEBO writes that early child development can contribute meaningfully to nation building.
Early learning opportunities apart from other benefits, are key strategies to reducing out-of-school children challenge.
Early child development (ECD) has also been documented to be one of the most cost effective strategies for poverty alleviation.
At the opening of the 62nd National Council on Education (NCE) in Kano, recently, the permanent secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Adamu Husseini, disclosed that 50 per cent of the cumulative 20 million out-of-school children in the world are in Nigeria.
He said the percentage represents 10.5 million of the 20 million out-of-school children in the world.
"Out of the country's 10.5 million out-of-school children - the world's highest number, sixty per cent of those children are in northern Nigeria."
He attributed it to cultural factors, saying: "Almajiri-children, those of the nomadic pastoralists, boy and girl-child dropout, social miscreants, children living with disability, those of migrant fishermen and more recently, children displaced by insurgency, constitute the bulk of the affected children."
Husseini added: "No nation can achieve economic prosperity without a sound, inclusive and functional education system. The security and stability of the country, to a large extent, depends on its ability to provide functional education to its citizens."
For the benefit of hindsight, attempts in the past to provide free education whether at the federal or state levels has never been successful due to perhaps poor planning and implementation.
Nigeria has in the attempt to stabilize this wobbling sector introduced a number of programmes to harness basic education as existing ones failed to meet the educational needs and aspirations of the populace.
This led to the proposal of the universal basic education (UBE) by the Nigerian government.
Basic education includes early childhood education, primary, and lower secondary education.
This was welcomed by the populace who were unhappy that the 6-3-3-4 system which replaced the 6- 5-2-3 system and the earlier introduced universal primary education programmes has not fared better than the earlier introduced programmes.
The Universal Basic Education (UBE) Programme which bears 6-3-3-4 system code was introduced as a reform programme aimed at providing greater access to, and ensuring quality of basic education throughout country.
The UBE Programme objectives aimed at majorly ensuring an uninterrupted access to 9-year formal education by providing free and compulsory basic education for every child of school-going age under 6.
Intrinsically, the Universal Education Act of 2004 mandating every government in Nigeria to provide free, compulsory and universal basic education for every child of primary and junior secondary school age has not been followed.
The present economic hardship has even become a threat that has jerked up the already intolerable number of out-of-school children in the country.
The failure of government to adhere to the Universal Basic Education Act has undoubtedly given rise to the high cost of obtaining qualitative basic education.
To overcome the challenges of children roaming about the street and the challenges being encountered in the delivery of adult and youth literacy programmes, government has a big role to play.
The child friendly school concept, early child development (ECD) which UNICEF is advocating for, if comprehensively adopted by the various states in Nigeria, would help to tackle the issue of out-of- school challenge.
Speaking in Kano on a 2-day media dialogue on Early Childhood Development organised by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Child Rights Information Bureau (CRIB) of the Federal Ministry of Information, an Education Specialist with UNICEF, Swadchet Sankey Sankey, said the Lancet Medical Journal Survey (2016) showed that globally, 250 million children are at risk of not reaching their full potentials in education, health wise and overall development.
She said, "This is as across the world. Sixty million children under-five are also at risk of not making the best of impact in life, with Nigeria ranking among the ten countries with the largest number of children at risk of poor development.
Sankey listed UNICEF recommended policies to ensuring that Nigerian children fair well in early development and are protected from killer diseases to include ; two years of free pre-primary education, six months of paid maternity leave; and four weeks of paid paternity leave.
Nigeria currently has only one year of free pre-primary education and no paternity leave at all. Only about one in every 10 pre-primary children are enrolled in early education activities.
"The goal of any investment in early childhood development is for all children in Nigeria, whether poor or rich from conception through to school, attain their development potential," she said.
However, the Education specialist explained that Nigeria still has a lot to do even though a lot has been done in terms of the health aspect of early childhood development vis-à-vis health, immunization, vitamins supplementation, prenatal care and post natal care.
She said it's not just about the care of the child but also about the care of the mother
"A healthy mother who is pregnant will give birth to a healthy child and that translates to how well the child develops physically. Even the child's brain development is affected by the biology, the gene, the environment and the health of the mother.
Sankey observed that though a lot has been done to ensure that prenatal and post-natal care is provided for women and children, there is still a lot that needs to be done.
"For example, ECD goes beyond immunization. When mothers go to the hospital for prenatal and postnatal care, what kind of capacity do they receive or the kind of stimulation activities can they do with children of different ages?
" Simple things like eyes contact or giving the child feedback, singing and reading to the children- these are things that mother and fathers and all caregivers need to know how to do and why it is important to do these to the children even right from when they are still in the womb because children begin to hear even when they are inside.
"These are areas that we need to strengthen. I don't think we are really doing well in all of these areas. We need to focus on how we can get communities and parents more into children development and in their children learning. Learning begins right from home. So even before the child begins to go to school; there is a lot that can be done to stimulate the child, to strengthen the brain and the child's curiosity at home."
The UNICEF Education Specialist said in terms of the learning aspect of early childhood development, there is a lot that needs to be done.
"We need to improve on the quality. It is not just enough to say that government is ready to fund pre-primary education, which is good. But research has shown that you need more than one year of pre-primary education for the child to be ready. But we have started. We need to ask of the quality of education within this one year that government is funding.
What is the capacity? Are teachers given better capacity? The school environment needs to be improved. If you go to the public primary schools, a whole school that is combining pre-primary and primary school, some of them don't have toilets and when they have, the toilets are not enough. Children of that age should have their needs; specially dedicated toilet for them and they should have safe drinking water within the facility with soap and basins for them to wash their hands because at this age, they play a lot which is the natural way that children learn. So they need hygiene.
"The environment needs to be made cleaner and the kind of books that are provided for children in pre-primary school are very important. For this age, you need picture books and books that teach them simple words.
"We need to look at how we are training teachers in the colleges of education and the universities so that we are up-to-date. There is a lot of research and pedagogy around how early education should be done. We need to look at our curriculum and review that. We also need to build the capacity of our lecturers in the various institutions on this new thinking around their role in early childhood education, the skills the child needs to learn and what activities they need to do in order to address the particular skill?
"How do we use locally available resources and talking about toys for playing, it doesn't have to be expensive toys. There are so many things around us that we can use in order to bring about these improvements."
Sankey also canvassed for improved funding because, according to her, pre-primary education is a subsector that needs to be paid attention to.
"It is not an addendum rather it is part of the basic education system. We should stop treating it as though it is an addendum. It is important because a research done in Jamaica showed that children who had quality pre-primary education for at least more than one year when they become adults, earned 25 per cent more than those who did not.
Meanwhile, the assistant director, Child Right Information Bureau, Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, Olumide Osanyinpeju, said there is need for all to rise up for the propagation, as early childhood development can make the difference between life and death.
"It depends on nurturing care that ensures health, nutrition, responsive caregiving, safety and security, accessible and quality early learning such as pre-primary education.
He said the emotional, social and physical development of young children has a direct effect on their overall development and on the adult they will become.
" That is why understanding the need to invest in very young children is so important, so as to maximize their future well-being."
Highlighting the importance of ECD, UNICEF's Education Specialist, said, "We need to get our early learning and pre-school education right.
" Investments in ECD can improve education outcomes, promote equity, build a skilled workforce and yield high returns and benefit society."