“High quality early childhood education and care has a huge potential to enhance children’s cognitive, linguistic, emotional and social development,” the Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Innocenti Research Centre, Marta Santos Pais, said. “It can help boost educational achievement, limit the early establishment of disadvantage, promote inclusion, be an investment in good citizenship, and advance progress for women.”But poor quality may result in weak foundations and shaky scaffolding for future learning, and what is true of cognitive and linguistic skills is also true of psychological and emotional development, the Centre stressed, calling for doubling spending on early childhood services in some countries.The Centre’s latest Report Card – The Childcare Transition – showed that for the under threes, the proportion of those in some form of early childhood education and care is 25 per cent, rising to more than 50 per cent in individual members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) group of 30 top industrialized countries.In part, these changes reflect new opportunities for women’s employment outside the home. But they also reflect new necessities. And the poorer the family, the greater is the pressure to return to work as soon as possible after a birth – often to unskilled, low-paid jobs.At the same time as this change is advancing across the economically developed world, progress in the scientific understanding of early brain development is confirming that the quality of care and interaction in the earliest months and years of a child’s life are critical for almost all aspects of a child’s development. “Taken together, says the report, these two developments mean that the child care transition carries with it the potential both for great benefit and great harm,” UNICEF said.Some OECD members have engaged closely with the childcare issue, pursuing policies designed to realize the potential benefits, but in others out-of-home child care is proceeding in an ad hoc way with less assurance of quality.The Centre proposes 10 benchmarks to monitor progress in early childhood education and care across the OECD. “The proposed benchmarks should be regarded as a first step towards establishing a set of minimum standards to facilitate good early childhood outcomes,” Ms. Santos Pais said.At present, only Sweden meets all 10 benchmarks, followed by Iceland with nine, and Denmark, Finland, France, and Norway with eight each. These are the same six countries that top the table of government expenditures on early childhood services. Many other OECD countries will need to at least double current levels of expenditure on early childhood services, concludes the report, if minimum acceptable standards are to be met. 12 December 2008With almost 80 per cent of three-to-six year-olds in rich countries now spending time away from their parents in some form of early childhood education and care, the quality of such services can make all the difference between great benefit and great harm for almost all aspects of a child’s development, according to a new United Nations report.