The Real Golden Years: Making Them Count

More than ten million children under the age of five die each year.  (See The World Health Report 2005, at http://www.who.int/whr/2005/whr2005_en.pdf.) 29,000 children under the age of five die each day – i.e., about 21 each minute – from preventable causes.  (See Goal: Reduce Child Mortality, at http://www.unicef.org/mdg/childmortality.html.)  The numbers are staggering.  In light of this reality, the significance of the newly-enacted Republic Act No. 10410, or “Early Years Act of 2013”, cannot be underestimated.

As its long name states, the Early Years Act is a law recognizing the age from zero to eight years as the first crucial stage of educational development, and strengthening the country’s early childhood care and development system.  It was signed into law on March 26, 2013 and became effective on April 18, 2013.  The Early Years Act seeks to promote the rights of children to survival, development and special protection, with full recognition of the nature of childhood. For this purpose, the Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) Council was established to implement a National System for Early Childhood Care and Development (“ECCD System”) that is comprehensive and multi-sectoral in approach. The ECCD Council is mandated to ensure the building of a strong foundation for development and learning of children from zero to four years, as well as support a full range of health, nutrition and social development programs for the child’s holistic development. The responsibility of ensuring the full development of children in their formative years, i.e. from five to eight years of age, is vested in the Department of Education (Sec. 2).

The ECCD System shall enjoy a nationwide coverage (Sec. 6).  It shall provide for two kinds of programs: (1) center-based programs, such as day-care services and community or church-based early education programs, and (2) home-based programs, such as neighborhood playgroups, family child care programs, and parent education and home visiting programs (Sec. 4). In its implementation, the ECCD System endeavors to utilize interagency collaboration at the national and local levels, as well as harness the potential of all stakeholders in the community, including nongovernmental organizations, professional associations and academic institutions (Sec. 2).

At the national level, the Department of Education, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Health, National Nutrition Council, and Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines are mandated to meet at an annual workshop to prepare work and financial plans that will coordinate their technical assistance and support for the National ECCD Program (Sec. 7(a)).  They are directed to work together to provide continuing professional development program support, supplementary learning materials, reference materials, supplemental nutrition and health care services within the framework of the ECCD System (Sec 7(a)(2)).

At the local level, Local Government Units are mandated to allocate a portion of their Special Education Fund and Gender and Development Fund to (1) support the implementation of their ECCD Program, (2) organize and support parent cooperatives to establish community-based ECCD programs, (3) provide counterpart funds for the continuing professional development of their ECCD public service providers; and (4) provide the facilities for the conduct of their ECCD Program (Sec. 7(b)).

The resources of parents and the community are likewise tapped to ensure a robust supportive environment for the ECCD programs. The role of parents as primary caregivers and their children’s first teachers is recognized. A Parent Education and Involvement, Advocacy and Mobilization of Communities component is included in the ECCD System Framework to develop parents’ strengths as ECCD partners in the home (Sec. 5(b)). Communities are encouraged to support local ECCD programs by participating in community-based projects relating to health, nutrition, social development and early childhood education (Sec. 7(c)).  Significantly, this approach of harnessing family and community strengths is consistent with worldwide trends. About 80% of health care in developing countries occurs at home, and as many as 40% of child deaths are prevented with family and community care, supplemented by access to solid knowledge and basic support. (See Goal: Reduce Child Mortality, at http://www.unicef.org/mdg/childmortality.html.)

A highlight of the Early Years Act is a special sensitivity to children with special needs. It states that the ECCD System shall provide for reasonable accommodation and accessible environments for children with disabilities and advocate respect for cultural and linguistic diversity, including the use of Filipino sign language as the visual language of the deaf community (Sec. 2).  Laudably, the Early Years Act recognizes the importance of providing children with disabilities opportunities during this critical period to ensure that they can reach their development potential and participate meaningfully in their home, schools and communities. To be sure, studies have shown that if early childhood care and development is neglected at this time, their vulnerabilities can become more severe, leading to lifetime consequences, increased poverty and profound exclusion. (See WHO and UNICEF encourage discussion and action on early childhood development and disability, at http://www.who.int/disabilities/media/news/2012/13_09/en/.)

Moreover, under the statute, a special priority with respect to public ECCD programs is given to children from age zero to four years who are in greatest need and who can least afford private ECCD programs (Sec. 12).

From a global and regional perspective, the Philippines seems to be doing quite well in regard to early child care and development.  The Philippines’ annual child death reduction rate of 3.8 percent from 1990 to 2011 was faster than the global average rate of 2.5 percent. Moreover, among Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines has the sixth lowest under-five death rate. (See PH child death rate drops, says Unicef, at http://ph.news.yahoo.com/ph-mid-range-in-global-child-survival-ranking.html.)

Looking in, however, there is much room for improvement. The primary school dropout rate is highest in the early grades, partly because children are poorly prepared for school.  (See Golden Years: Early Learning and Development, at http://www.unicef.org/philippines/reallives_12997.html.)

The importance of these early years cannot be overemphasized. How we were cared for, nurtured, taught, and fed then, determine who we become in our later years. The opportunities made available to us then largely determine our chances later in life. Many people grow into their full potential, harnessing their skills and abilities to carve out a successful and meaningful life for themselves. Many, however, fall in the opposite direction, with their vulnerabilities magnified from neglect in their critical early years. This Early Years Act strives to build our chances from early on, making a national investment on the full potential and development of the Filipino people.

 (Ricky Ongkiko and Tracy Anne A. Ong co-authored this post.)

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