Early Childhood Education around the World
Preschool education in Sweden is not federally funded, however it is regulated under the Social Services Act of 1980 (Parliament decides the aims and capacity of public child care; the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs dictates laws and proposals related to childcare nationwide). Pre-K programs are instead funded by local municipalities and by parents (only preschool for children aged six is free). The country published its first guidelines for preschool curriculum in 1988. Under these guidelines, preschools are part of community educational systems.
The Swedish plan states, “Knowledge is conquered through learning, a kind of learning that happens in different ways in different environments…. It is not only through the mind we learn, we are learning with the whole body. And everything we learn cannot be verbalized.” The curriculum of early childhood education in Sweden is based on humanistic traditions and integrates ideas of Fröbel, Rousseau, Key, and Dewey—children participate in language, arts, and communication activities. The age at which a child begins preschool is discretionary and available as early as one year; however, national law requires that children attend preschool through age seven.
The United Kingdom offers several types of early childhood education provisions. Nursery schools and nursery classes are offered during the regular school term free of cost to three and four-year-olds (but only for a couple of hours a day). A program referred to as “The Early Years Unit” is available during the school term for children three to five years. This program is also available at state-funded primary schools and infant schools.
Rather than kindergarten, children in the United Kingdom can attend a Reception class (or Class R) at the age of four. This class is offered on a full-time schedule during the school term. Reception class is considered the first class students take in the primary system (Scotland does not have a Reception class). In addition to these Department of Education and Employment-funded programs, Opportunity Groups are also available to families who have children with special needs. In the OECD report published in 2000, about 98 percent of three and four-year-olds in the UK participated in these preschool programs.
United States of America
“The important starting point for trying to understand the US system of early childhood education and care is to realize that there is no system,” states the 2000 OECD report on the United States. There is no instituted framework, and none of the states offer a coherent in-state structure for pre-compulsory school-aged children. Instead, three sub-programs vie for funding and attention: Head Start (for under-privileged children), private day care, and public school system spin-off programs for preschool and kindergarten.
Of these three programs, Head Start is the only government-funded organization. But for families to be eligible, they must earn below the poverty level (less than $15,020 for a one-child household with both parents present). And according to the 2000 OECD report, only 36 percent of these eligible children actually receive services.
Since 1994, the number of pre-kindergarten state-funded public school system programs has begun to grow. More programs are now available for children one-to two-years prior to kindergarten. But there is no standard, and states’ goals, quality, and eligibility vary widely.
The poor state of affairs has inspired the call for public awareness and several private fundraising organizations have sprung up as a result. More recently, the “I Am Your Child Campaign”, a national public awareness effort striving to make early childhood development a top priority in the United States, was created by the Reiner Foundation. The organization works with several child-centered agencies and organizations (including the American Academy of Pediatrics). Unfortunately, despite the efforts of various independent organizations, there is still no government-funded cohesive early childhood education initiative in the United States.
In most industrialized countries, access to early childhood education is a statutory right from age three. But the trend, according to the OECD, is leaning towards coverage beginning at an even earlier age; aiming to give students at least three years of funded preschool. Because of the wide variance between countries, and even here in the United States between individual states, parents must be aware that the emphasis of early childhood education falls on them.
A child’s first teachers are his parents. And countries such as New Zealand, Japan, and Australia have launched government programs to help parents teach their children before they enter the primary school system. These programs emphasize the importance of reading to children, beginning as early as birth. In addition, teaching your child about the world around him, everyday problem-solving skills, and basic social mores are all important in shaping children in their early years. Sir Apirana Ngata aptly summarized in 1949, “Early childhood is a period of momentous significance for all people….By the time this period is over, children will have formed conceptions of themselves as social beings, as thinkers, and as language users, and they will have reached certain important decisions about their own abilities and their own worth.”
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