Around the world, families are struggling with the cost of childcare. Staff are poorly paid and undervalued. Nursery schools and day care centres are going out of business and children’s futures are being damaged. It’s a sorry picture. If a four-year-old were to draw this situation, it might well be a big sad face.

The affordability of childcare has been an issue for some time, but the post-pandemic economic situation has forced costs even higher, because of rising energy and other running costs, and staff leaving in droves for better paid work.

It’s no surprise then that people – very often women – have taken to the streets in protest. In countries such as the UK, US, Australia, Ireland and Kenya, to name a few, there have been vocal demands for better pay and training for childcare workers, improved funding of childcare, and stronger maternity and paternity leave.

Belatedly, governments in some major industrialised nations are beginning to respond. President Joe Biden has set the goal of establishing universal pre-school care and education for the two years before children start primary education in the US. Canada has announced a C$30 billion (£18 billion) investment in a national childcare programme. In the UK, discussion from all the main political parties has begun about overhauling childcare provision. Significantly, last November, representatives of 147 countries pledged at a UNESCO conference to invest at least 10 per cent of education budgets in early childhood education.

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This all represents a start, but nothing more. This crisis in childcare is truly global, affecting women and their families in countries of every income level. Across the world, the high cost or lack of availability of adequate childcare is the main reason that women leave the workforce, sometimes never to return. When this happens, it is not only the women and their families who suffer – businesses lose valuable employees, and productivity and tax revenue decline.

That’s why, this International Women’s Day, the global children’s charity Theirworld is calling for a transformation in childcare around the world.

We need a worldwide movement for the early years in the same way that there have been movements that cut across national boundaries, demographics and interest groups around climate change, racial intolerance and the treatment of women – recognising that we have to use our own voices on behalf of toddlers who can’t yet speak up themselves.

Theirworld will soon launch an international campaign, bringing together government, business, international agencies, civil society and youth campaigners. Its aim is to have early education and childcare prioritised by national leaders, treated as the foundation of a nation’s educational structure, starting at pre-school all the way to tertiary education. This vital sector must be much better funded by governments, donors and philanthropists – major aid donors currently spend just 1.2 per cent of their education aid on early childhood education.  

Providing for children in their early years must be treated as a public good, not a private test of a families’ financial strength. The first five to six years is a vital time in a child’s life, when 90 per cent of brain development occurs, and patterns of learning and behaviour are set for the future.

Children everywhere deserve a nurturing environment, somewhere safe and clean to play, and properly trained and paid teachers and caregivers. This would benefit all children, but the most vulnerable and least well-off, in particular girls in low- and middle-income countries, will be given the best possible preparation for primary school, when disparities in wealth and quality of education really begin to show.

Those who don’t receive adequate care and attention in their early years are at greater risk of going through life with poorer physical and mental health, and lower earning potential. Right now, 350 million children – 40 per cent of those below primary-school-entry age – don’t have access to early childcare and education. 

Early years services must be treated as an investment not a cost. For when they are done properly, children’s life chances can be transformed. Study after study has shown the huge economic benefits arising from investing in childcare and getting women back to work (if they want to). 

It has been estimated that providing adequate childcare for women around the world would add $3 trillion to the global economy annually. Theirworld’s own research has found that every pound invested in early childhood care and development leads to a return of over £14 for the most disadvantaged children.

I could go on. There is a world of numbers to support the case for improving early childhood care and education – a few that even pre-school learners might understand. But really, more shouldn’t be needed. The case is clearly there that this is the right thing to do, that all improvements in early years services are worth investing in, and that no child should miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity to have the best possible start in life.

Sarah Brown is Chair of Theirworld and Executive Chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education

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