If you knew of an investment that will make you 4 to 16 times more money you put in while helping equalize economic opportunities in your country, you probably wouldn’t want to miss the chance. Well, this is what Serbia has been doing by partnering with the World Bank to invest in early childhood education.
There is a growing body of evidence indicating that early childhood education and care (ECEC) is key for human capital development. Research shows that each $1 invested in quality early childhood programs can yield returns between $4 and $16.
Attending schools at an early age has lifelong benefits for children. It has positive impacts on their learning, health and behavior, and increases the chances of being able to earn higher incomes in the future. These benefits significantly outweigh the cost of reducing learning gaps at the preschool level, which can lead to vulnerabilities later on in life.
Serbia has made important advances in making early childhood education accessible to more children: the attendance rate for children between 3 and 6 years of age rose to almost 76 percent in the past year, from 52 percent in 2017. With this pace, Serbia is getting closer to the goal of the European Union to have at least 96 percent of children participating in preschool education by 2030.
Since 2017, the World Bank has jointly implemented with the Government of Serbia a US$50 million Inclusive Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) Project, which will run through to 2024. This project seeks to increase access to schools and improve the quality of learning programs for children aged 0 to 6.5 years. A particular focus of the project is on children who are socially and economically disadvantaged.
The ECEC project plans to improve access to pre-school opportunities by creating 3,500 new preschool places. In partnership with the Novak Djokovic Foundation, some 150 preschool classrooms have already been repurposed or equipped, adding 3,000 preschool spaces. In addition, across 30 municipalities, around 3,700 children from various backgrounds have so far entered the pre-school system either through half-day or flexible programs. This has helped them bridge gaps in physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development, which in some cases are already significant by the age of two or three.
Better access is a necessary but not sufficient condition to increase learning outcomes. For this reason, the ECEC project supports the introduction of a new Preschool Curriculum Framework. This flagship program is designed to introduce a new learning paradigm, making children feel empowered, understood, and free to learn actively and flexibly. The ‘Years of Ascent’ syllabus allows teachers to better understand the needs of children and helps them develop more adaptive teaching strategies that reflect the specifics of local environments and socio-cultural backgrounds. More than 100 preschools have become part of the program, while 14,000 teachers have received training and mentoring support to better implement this innovative approach.
Benefits of this intervention are not only felt by the children and teachers: parents and families, including those from vulnerable groups, are also becoming agents of change. The ECEC project also seeks to increase the awareness of parents of the importance of early age health and nutrition by supporting learning opportunities in local communities. To this end, more than 4,000 parents have attended workshops, parenting fairs, and open doors events in preschool locations.
ECEC reforms also paid off during the most recent global health crisis. Since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the work supported by the ECEC project helped the Government of Serbia ensure uninterrupted preschool education through the delivery of online trainings to teachers and media campaigns to support parents and families.
Sustaining the results achieved by the ECEC project, and the reform momentum will require continued efforts and commitment. One important avenue to pursue is the extension of the new learning paradigm to primary schools. Doing so will allow simultaneously the new approach to take hold among older children – which will build on and consolidate progress achieved earlier on in their schooling – and provide opportunities for teachers to further develop professionally and improve their competencies and the quality of teaching.
Quality pre-primary and primary education combined are the foundation of a child’s life and every following step in the education system depends on their success. The time is now for Serbia to capitalize on the gains it has made on early childhood education and bring the same level of innovation and attention to quality into primary education.
This opinion piece was originally published in the Danas daily newspaper on Nov 16, 2022