Getting a better understanding of how you build local, national and international agendas focused on Early Childhood Education (ECE). Sharing experience and knowledge across borders. These were the focus and outcomes of the OECD’s first conference on early childhood education in Paris this past June, which welcomed participants from more than 40 countries including practitioners, government representatives, academics, funders and advocates.
The gathering was organized by the Paris-based Edu Ensemble in collaboration with the Lawson Foundation, the Margaret & Wallace McCain Foundation and ReadyNation from the US. The Science of Early Child Education (SECD) and the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, two initiatives that have been supported by the Lawson and McCain Foundations, were also part of the organizing committee.
We felt it was an important initiative to be part of for a number of reasons. First, given our desire to be a leader in the area of child and youth development, we realized that as a foundation, we need to be better connected to what is happening around the globe. Second, given our long investment in some significant initiatives around ECE, we thought that we would share Canadian expertise, and in particular, as it relates to knowledge creation and dissemination. And finally, we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to bring a few key Canadian organizations including the BC Aboriginal Childcare Society, Canadian Child Care Federation, and l’Association québécoise des centres de la petite enfance so they too could learn and connect with colleagues from around the world.
There were a number of key moments for me in Paris.
One was when I realized to what extent Canada is ahead of most other countries when it comes to building platforms to share knowledge about early child development and education. Both the SECD and the Encyclopedia platforms were showcased to an awe-struck audience. The quality of the work that we are doing here in Canada is amazing and we should be proud of it. We truly are trailblazers when it comes to building platforms to disseminate high-quality knowledge. Kudos to our two grantees for sharing their stories.
But there was one big aha! moment for me. That came in a session that I was moderating and that brought on stage a number of unusual suspects to talk about how they came to be champions of quality ECE and why. One of the presenters was a retired Admiral from the US military who is part of a group of more than 600 retired generals and admirals who have taken up the cause of ECE as a key priority for the US. In good part, their interest and passion for ECE comes from a key statistic: 71% of young Americans today would be unable to become a private in the US army for one of three reasons: (1) their inability to write and pass the elementary entrance test; (2) obesity and poor health; and (3) drug addiction. Many in the audience (including myself) recoiled somewhat when they first heard this as many thought that this was about promoting the importance of ECE to get more young Americans into the military. But actually, the speaker was quick to explain that the needs of the army are really not any different from the needs of most employers who are all looking to hire young Americans who are educated and healthy. Good point.
And while I don’t believe for a minute that providing for the labour force should be the primary reason we should be promoting quality ECE, I do think it’s also important to have champions coming at it from that perspective if we are going to get to the outcome we are looking for (i.e. more high quality ECE for all children).
Another one of the speakers had been for many years the chief of police in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He talked about his experience witnessing the effects of lack of quality ECE and the negative impact that he saw on children and families. He talked from a very personal position and about things that, I would gather, very few in the audience would know anything about. He actually left the police force and started a nonprofit organization that promotes quality ECE across the Netherlands. Talk about an unusual suspect!
The conversation had an impact on me because I realize that we have done a poor job in Canada in identifying those truly unusual suspects. There is no doubt in my mind, that we have done outstanding work in the development of sound knowledge about the importance of quality ECE and that we have the platforms to disseminate and share that knowledge. I would say that we are second to none on this front.
But while we can pat ourselves on the back for doing this work, we need to acknowledge that we have not done as well in terms of broadening the tent and bringing new voices into the ECE conversation. We need new champions. We have multiple audiences for our messages, and we need multiple voices to reach them. It’s as simple as that.
It might be hard for us to accept that people come to this issue from different perspectives, but if we want to be pragmatic, actually have influence and move the agenda forward more boldly, new voices need to come to the table. And those voices will be unusual.