All about...early education and care across the world


Dr Helen Penn is professor of early childhood at the University of East London and visiting research fellow at the Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, London University. She has acted as a consultant or carried out research in many of the countries described in the guide. She is currently working on an EU education and poverty alleviation programme in southern Africa. A world view

Dr Helen Penn is professor of early childhood at the University of East London and visiting research fellow at the Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, London University. She has acted as a consultant or carried out research in many of the countries described in the guide. She is currently working on an EU education and poverty alleviation programme in southern Africa.

A world view

Snapshots of childhood and early education and care systems around the globe

Almost all countries around the world now provide some kind of early education and care, and surprisingly, it is not always determined by a country's wealth or social equality

In 2000, in Dakar in Senegal, all the world's countries and many important international agencies such as the World Bank signed up to an agreement, drafted by Unesco and Unicef, to provide education for all children in every country.

The agreement, known as Education for All (EFA) has six goals. The first goal is 'to expand and improve comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children'.

Early education and care is on the agenda for the poorest as well as the richest countries. Almost all countries, except perhaps the most war-torn, now provide some sort of early education and care, at least in their cities.

Does early childhood care and education really make a difference? Children grow up in different circumstances and their life chances are very different depending where in the world they are born.

Experiences of childhood, too, are very different and the status accorded to children in different societies varies enormously. There is a range of beliefs about when childhood begins and ends; when children are ready to learn; when - and if - children should work.

There are also widely differing views about the obedience children should show towards adults, and how such obedience should be enforced. An example of an African expectation of children's behaviour is given in the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. He describes his childhood growing up in a family compound, and how one of the first lessons he learned as a small child was to be respectful to his elders.

The lives children lead also reflect the political, social and economic situation of their country, which can be measured and compared in standard ways. International agencies like the World Bank and Unicef give indicators, updated annually. These are some of the most useful ones:

* The size of the population and what proportion of the population is aged under six.

* The range of different traditions, languages and religious affiliations in a country.

* The average income per head (in dollars)1.

* The percentage of poor children - the number of children in the country who live below the poverty line2. This is closely related to inequality.

Generally, the more unequal a society is, the more crime and disorder there is and the more children who suffer.

* Under-fives mortality rates - the numbers of children who die before they reach the age of five.

* Literacy rates - the proportion of the population that has had education and has learned to read.

Countries can be grouped very roughly into three categories for comparison:

* Rich countries mainly in North America and western Europe (as a group, often referred to as 'the North'). About 18 per cent of the world's children, the minority, live in the North. Most rich countries have well established and mainly publicly funded systems of early education and childcare. All rich countries have low under-five mortality rates, less than ten in 1,000. In many of these countries, however, there are minority groups or indigenous peoples whose circumstances are much worse than those of other citizens.

* Poor countries, mainly in South America, Africa and Asia (as a group, often referred to as 'the South') where child survival rates and literacy rates are low, and public services are poor or non-existent. These countries are mostly made up of many different groups of people, and multilingualism is the norm.

* Ex-communist countries (referred to as Transitional countries) that once had comprehensive health and education services, including kindergartens, but since 1990 these services have been collapsing.

This guide offers a snapshot on how early education and care is provided in 18 countries across the world, from the North, from the South and from Transitional countries. It gives information about the political, economic and social circumstances of each country, using the standard indicators.

Then it gives some details about early education and care in those countries. Some countries in the chart are very well known. Others are less well known.

Footnotes

1 This is given as the GNP (gross national product) divided by the number of people.

2 This means poverty is relative, and judged by the country's own standards. A poor child in the UK is still much better off than poor children in Asia or Africa.

AUSTRALIA

Australia is a huge country, sparsely populated. There are 19,536,000 people. About half a million (2.5 per cent) are Aborigine people, who lived in Australia before settlers came. There are about 500 Aborigine tribes, many with their own language. Some Aborigine beliefs are incompatible with those of Europeans; they believe the land owns them; people cannot own the land. In the past, Aborigine children have been very badly treated and forcibly removed from their parents, who were seen as too primitive to bring them up.

Australia also has many immigrants from Asia. About 20 per cent of the population are of recent Asian origin.

The average income per head is $20,640, but this disguises income inequalities. Aborigine peoples are much poorer and their child mortality rates are significantly higher. Children under six make up about 8 per cent of the population: 12.6 per cent of these children live in poverty.

Expenditure on services for young children is less than in other developed countries.

At a national level there are separate ministries for daycare and education, although in some states they have been integrated. Australia has a federal system of government, which means that individual states can decide their own policies on early childhood. There is mixed public and private provision; the younger the child, the more likely they will be in a private nursery. But regulations are generally more lax. Staff ratios for children under two are 5:1, and one member of staff for every 25 children has to be trained. Staff working conditions are poor, and turnover rates high. School starts formally at age six, and around 80 to 90 per cent of children attend reception classes from age four. Verdict Early education and care is uneven. Attitudes towards Aborigine peoples are changing, but a more respectful approach is overdue.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a small, poor, eastern European country with a population of 7,790,000. About 3.6 per cent of the population are Roma (Gipsy), and a further 9.4 per cent are Turkish. Bulgaria was heavily influenced, and repressed, by the Soviet Union. Since transition in 1990 a Mafia has emerged, and there is a very small number of very rich people. The average per capita income is $1,220.

Under the umbrella of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria had good health and education services. Almost everyone is literate, and the under-five mortality rate is 16 per 1,000.

In pre-transition times in the cities, 90 per cent of children aged three to six went to full-time state kindergartens. The curriculum emphasised collective responsibilities rather than individual expression, and by the standards of western Europe, children were not allowed freedom to choose what to do. But the kindergartens were generously staffed, with expert help such as speech therapy, and lavishly equipped with dance halls and swimming pools, because physical wellbeing and physical competence was highly valued. Even in rural districts kindergarten provision was very good.

Since transition, wages of teachers have fallen dramatically, and there has been little or no money for upkeep of the kindergarten buildings. It is now a struggle to keep kindergartens open, and the government is considering alternative policies for early education and care.

The exception to support for young children in Bulgaria has been the education of children with special needs, who are segregated into special schools, and the education of Roma children. As elsewhere in eastern Europe, the Roma have been very badly treated. They mostly live in ghettos and are despised by many Bulgarians. Most of the children in orphanages and special schools are from Roma communities. Verdict Families are fearful of losing the services they once took for granted. Staff are depressed because their wages have become nearly worthless. Yet expectations of what early education and care should provide are still high - except for Roma families or children with special needs.

Cuba

Cuba is a small Caribbean country with a population of 11,273,000. The population is mostly Afro-Latin descendents of Spanish settlers. Cuba is the only country in Latin America that is communist.

Statistics are hard to come by, and no figures are available for average income. The USA has operated an embargo on Cuba for many years and as a result of these trade restrictions, it is a very poor country. But it has an egalitarian society and has the best education and health record in Latin America. Ninety-six per cent of the people are literate, and the under-five child mortality rate is very low, nine in 1,000.

There is a widespread kindergarten system in Cuba, and most children attend. President Fidel Castro made kindergartens a priority within the education system when he came to power after the revolution in 1959. The kindergarten system may not offer children much opportunity to choose, and could certainly do with more resources, but for a poor country, Cuba treats young children very well.

Verdict 'Cuba has created an egalitarian society in which the entire population is guaranteed access to food, employment and education' (Noam Chomsky, 2000, see Useful Books, p22).

Denmark

Denmark is a small, wealthy, egalitarian northern European country, with a population of 5,343,000. Five per cent of the population are recent immigrants from Africa and Asia. The average income is $33,040. Rates for child poverty are very low - only 5 per cent of children are poor by (high) Danish standards. Everyone is literate.

There is generous maternity and paternity leave, but by two years old, more than 68 per cent of children are enrolled in kindergartens, which are part of the social welfare system. Parents pay a small contribution. The pedagogues or childcare workers are trained to university level, and there is continuous, in-service training for all childcare workers.

At age five children can go to nursery classes, with wraparound care at the kindergartens or leisure centres. School starts at age seven. Some of the kindergartens are run by voluntary agencies, but there is no private sector. The kindergartens are purpose-built to a high standard. Children are regarded as autonomous and are left free to decide their own activities as much as possible.

There are bilingual classes for recent immigrants. Many young children are informally taught English as well as Danish. Verdict A good country for young children.

France

France has the same size population as the UK, about 59,600,000, but is a much bigger country geographically with a larger rural population. About 7 per cent of the population are immigrants, mainly from north Africa and French-speaking west Africa. They experience some racism, and the French National Front party has a lot of support. The average income is $24,210.

About 8 per cent of children live in poverty. There is universal literacy.

State nursery education was first introduced in France in 1848. All children, even in the most remote mountain districts, now attend ecoles maternelles, which offer full-time nursery education for children aged two/three to five. The Government also supports a variety of creche and subsidised childminder provision for children under three years, as well as parent co-operatives, and a wide range of out-of-school and holiday provision. The private sector is too tiny to count.

France has a highly centralised education system. The ecoles maternelles are run by highly qualified teachers, but adult:child ratios are not as good as in other European countries.

Verdict Another good country for young children, as long as they are not from an immigrant background.

Hungary

Hungary is another eastern European country that was once part of the communist bloc, but more prosperous and independent than its neighbours.

The population is 9,867,000. Three per cent are Roma, who, as elsewhere in eastern Europe, have been treated badly.

The average income is $4,510. The population level is falling, and only 6 per cent of children are under five. About 10 per cent of children live in poverty. Many of these are Roma children.

Hungary had a reputation for very good health and education services. In particular, there were creches where considerable attention was paid to the health and wellbeing of the children. For example, babies slept outside every day on verandas in summer shaded from the sun and in winter well wrapped up, to get their bodies used to coping with different temperatures.

Most children aged three to six went to kindergartens. Like elsewhere in communist countries, they were generously designed and staffed. The curriculum was designed to encourage children to be part of a group.

Particular attention was paid to children with special needs, who were segregated but given very carefully graded exercises to try to overcome their disabilities - a method popularised in the UK by the Peto Institute.

Now, many creches have closed, and mothers have been forced to stay at home. A childminding scheme has been introduced as an alternative. More individual choice has been introduced into the kindergartens, and there is less money to fund them.

Verdict Hungarian education is still reckoned to be very good indeed.

India

India is the second largest country in the world, with a population over a billion - 1,041,144,000. It is made up of many different regions, forced to come together under British colonial rule.

There are more than 400 languages spoken, of which 18 are official languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Urdu and English. Children routinely speak several languages. There have been violent clashes over religion, mainly between Hindus and Muslims.

There is great wealth in India, but there is also great poverty. The average income is only $440. India's population is young - nearly 14 per cent are under six - but many children die in infancy. The under-five mortality rate is 93 in 1,000.

The most well-known scheme for early education and care in India is the Integrated Development Scheme, which combines basic pre-school education with nutritional supplements and health care. Many thousands of children have benefited from this approach.

Equality makes all the difference in India. In the northern regions, where there is great inequality, literacy rates are less than 50 per cent, and even worse for girls. In the south of India, especially in the state of Kerala, although the average income is not very different from the north of India, there is much less inequality. Girls are treated as well as boys and the literacy rate is nearly 98 per cent.

Child labour is common in India. Most young children are expected to contribute to household work, fetching water, cleaning and looking after younger siblings. Many businesses employ children.

Verdict Growing up is very hard for poor children, even worse for girls.

Italy

Italy has a population of 57,449,000, but a falling birth rate - only 5 per cent of children are under six. Almost everyone is literate. There is a small immigrant population, mainly from north Africa and eastern Europe.

The average income is $20,090. However, Italy is made up of many small regions or communes, which have different histories and traditions. The north of Italy is rich and egalitarian, and the south of Italy, particularly Sicily, is poor and has been dominated by the Mafia. Overall child poverty rates are high, at about 20 per cent.

The standard of early education and care in Italy depends on the region or commune. Reggio Emilia is a small town or commune, but it is famous for its innovative programme of specially built, full-time nursery schools where children are encouraged to follow their own interests, which are carefully documented by staff. Staff have weekly opportunities for in-service discussion and training, and they continuously evaluate what they are doing with parents and the local community.

In the northern regions of Italy there is very little private provision, and in some communes there is almost universal local authority care and education provision for children from two years onwards. In the south, the picture is more mixed and services are of a lower standard.

Verdict Wonderful to be a child in Reggio Emilia; not quite so good in some other parts of the country.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan in central Asia was once part of the Soviet Union. While still one of the world's largest countries, it has a population of only 16,027,000. About 9 per cent are aged under six.

The Kazakhs were originally pastoralists, moving around the steppes or plains with herds of animals, but they were compulsorily settled by Stalin in the 1930s, and several million were killed. Many Russians and Germans were then forcibly moved to Kazakhstan.

The Soviet Union provided education and health care, and brought electrification and sanitation to very remote areas. But after independence in 1990, the Kazakhs tried to reclaim their heritage and re-introduced the Kazakh language as an official language alongside Russian.

Many Russians and most Germans left. The population is now 46 per cent Kazakh, and 35 per cent Russian. The rest are Tatars and Uzbeks. Unlike in the other central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgistan, there has not been civil war, but there have been enormous upheavals as Soviet lifestyles and standards have been rejected.

The average income is $1,340, but the under-five mortality rate is only 13 per 1,000. There is 98 per cent literacy. Kazakhstan has oil and gas revenues and is not a very poor country, but there is now considerable inequality and corruption. About 40 per cent of children are poor.

Under the Soviet Union, about 65 to 70 per cent of children aged two to six attended full-time free kindergartens, some of them very well equipped with swimming pools and gymnasiums.

Most of these kindergartens were workplace settings. After transition in 1990, they were closed. Now only about 15 per cent of children (whose parents can pay the new fees) go to kindergartens, although the government has introduced nursery classes for five- and six-year-olds in most schools.

All kindergartens and schools have to provide Kazakh instruction, which is difficult since there are not enough fully-trained Kazakh teachers. Schools are also required to have rooms or corners with Kazakh-style tents and materials where children learn about their Kazakh ancestors and sing songs about the Kazakh motherland.

Verdict Many parents have found it hard to come to terms with the changes in kindergartens and schools.

South Africa

South Africa has a population of 44,203,000. About 14 per cent are under the age of six. Descendents of white Europeans controlled South Africa under the apartheid regime, although they form only 13 per cent of the population. Twenty-two per cent are Zulu, 18 per cent Xhosa, 9 per cent Pedi, 7 per cent Sotho, 3 per cent Tsonga, and various smaller groups include San or bushmen.

There are now 12 national languages (including sign language). Most black children speak two or more languages.

The legacy of apartheid is hard to eradicate. Whites lived in separate areas, with good schools and services, while black people were forced to live in segregated townships and squatter camps, and received an education which taught them that they were inferior.

The ANC, the new government, has passed liberal laws giving all people more rights, and sharing more resources, but huge inequalities remain. The average income is $8,466, but more than 35 per cent of children are very poor.

South Africa is also ravaged by HIV/AIDs. More than 25 per cent of the population in the 15 to 39 age group are sero-positive, and there are many young children who are orphans. The literacy rate is about 82 per cent.

Under apartheid the government provided nursery education in white areas, modelled on Britain - full-time nursery schools, with generous inside and outside space, and lots of equipment. The curricula were entirely European.

In the townships, NGOs (voluntary organisations) sponsored community daycare. There was also private daycare, some of it good, but much of it small profit-making enterprises in back rooms and garages.

The new post-apartheid government decided that although teachers and equipment were lacking, the fairest way forward was for all schools to offer nursery classes for five- and six-year-olds. It also devised a qualifications framework for pre-school workers and introduced new curricula which took account of African perspectives, such as African languages and traditions of singing and dancing.

The nursery schools have become mainly fee-paying and the NGOs continue working in local communities to try to improve standards. But improvement is a slow process, hampered by lack of money and the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Verdict An extremely hard task to create a nation for children out of such a difficult past.

Tanzania

Tanzania, in east Africa, has a population of 36,830,000, with nearly 14 per cent under the age of six. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average annual income of $240. Under-five mortality is 170 children per 1,000. Almost all children are poor in an absolute sense - their families do not have enough money to live.

There are 120 ethnic groups, mainly Bantu. In Zanzibar and along the coast, there are many Muslim communities, but most of the population is actively Christian. All children must master three languages to become literate - their local language; Swahili, the regional language; and English, the language of instruction.

Literacy rates used to be around 85 per cent, but over the past 15 years they have fallen to 67 per cent. Tanzania has been badly hit by HIV/AIDs, which is now widespread, and there are many orphaned children.

The government has a basic early education and care policy and there are a few state-sponsored nursery schools in the cities, which mainly teach reading, writing and counting. Most provision is unregulated private daycare, some of it a very low standard indeed, with children crammed into small dark spaces, sitting on mud floors.

More well-to-do families hire girls from poor families as servants to do the housework and help look after children. Most children are required to help their families by sharing in household tasks such as fetching water and firewood, feeding animals, weeding, and cleaning. Play is a luxury.

Verdict Young children in Tanzania are heartbreakingly poor and their families are threatened with HIV/AIDS.

United Kingdom

The UK has a population of 59,657,000. Six per cent are recent immigrants, mainly from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. The most mixed population is in London, where more than 250 languages are spoken.

The average income is $21,410, but there is considerable inequality. The child poverty rate is 29 per cent - much worse than in most European countries.

Early education and care is provided by a mix of providers. Nursery education is free, and usually of a high standard, but only of very short duration - two and a half hours a day, where most other countries provide five hours or more.

School starts very early and by age four most children are in primary school (compared with six or seven years in most countries in 'the North').

Daycare is almost all in the private sector, and because regulations are strict, costs are very high, putting private daycare out of reach of poor families. A new Government programme, Sure Start, for children aged nought to three, concentrated in poor areas and focusing on health support and parent education, is supposed to be combating child poverty, but as yet this has not had a measurable impact.

Verdict Such high child poverty rates are unacceptable in a civilised country. Much more needs to be done.

Conclusion

These brief snapshots suggest that providing early education and care is not a straightforward matter. It depends very much on a country's history and traditions.

The most important challenge is inequality - within countries, but also between 'North' and 'South' and Transitional countries. Children in 'the South' starve or die in their millions, while in 'the North' children's right to choice and freedom to play are highly valued. These differences are the most important moral issue we face.

Germany

* The unification of East and West Germany in 1990 has made Germany the largest country in Europe, with a population of 81,990,000. About 2 per cent of the population are immigrants, mainly Turkish Kurds.

The average income is $26,570, but there are still significant differences between East and West Germany, and about 10 per cent of children live in poverty, mainly in East Germany and among the immigrant communities.

There is universal literacy. Germany is one of the countries with a declining birth rate - under-fives make up only 5.8 per cent of the population.

East Germany had a communist-style kindergarten system and state creches. West Germany was less well provided. Since unification, most creches have been closed, and the communist kindergartens overhauled, with comprehensive retraining for staff.

Germany has a federal system, and individual regions have considerable autonomy. However, after unification, the national government insisted that all children aged three to five must have some form of kindergarten experience.

Kindergartens are classed as social welfare provision, rather than education, and the staff are trained as social pedagogues, not as teachers.

There is a variety of voluntary providers (including parent co-operatives) as well as state providers, but very little private provision. The regions support different kinds of provision. In some cities, like Frankfurt and Berlin, the new kindergarten buildings are examples of world-class, prize-winning architecture, and the curricula and the building styles together offer children exceptional freedom to play and create their own private spaces. In other regions, provision is more conventional.

Verdict Great to be a young child in Frankfurt; less good in other places.

Brazil

* Brazil is a huge country, with a population of 174,706,000. Just under half the population are the descendants of Portuguese colonialists; the rest are mainly American Indian groups (such as the Guarani and Arawak) and descendants of African slaves. It is a deeply unequal country, with a wealthy middle class and extremely poor landless peasants, especially in the north-east. The average income is $4,630.

Children aged under six are 11 per cent of the population. More than 80 children in every 1,000 die before they are five, and nearly 20 per cent never get the chance to go to school or learn to read.

Middle class children receive early childhood care and education that offers learning through play, high quality care, qualified staff and good schooling, as in 'the North'; but for children of poor Brazilians, life is very different.

Verdict 'Rich children can be more childlike... since it is part of their class training to be spoiled, even helpless. Poor children in a typical favela (slum) household cannot afford to be childlike, spoiled or helpless'

(see Useful Books, p 22).

China

* China is the biggest country in the world, with a population of 1,294,370,000. Within it there are 56 recognised nationalities, including the Miaou (0.65 per cent), Puyi (0.23 per cent) Tung (0.18 per cent) and Yao (0.18 per cent).

The average annual income is $750 but there are considerable differences in income between remote rural communities, where people suffer much hardship, and the big cities. Literacy is 81 per cent and the under-five mortality rate is 39 per 1,000.

Despite its huge size and many nationalities, communist China is very centralised. An official policy limits families to having only one child, to try to reduce the population, which is mostly obeyed.

As China modernises, the system is changing and the gap between rich and poor is increasing. In urban areas full-time kindergartens were formerly widespread. The national curriculum for kindergartens was very precise and ran to 18 volumes of instructions to teachers, although this has now been relaxed.

The ideographic (picture) script of Chinese means that children have to learn to read and write 2,000 signs (as opposed to the alphabet of 26 letters) to become literate, so kindergarten education is a very important preparation. Children in kindergartens had weekly health checks, and, as elsewhere in communist systems, there was a great emphasis on physical well-being. Children had 20-minute exercise sessions after each lesson period, and were taught callisthenics, a form of exercise which encourages graceful movement and suppleness.

In rural areas, kindergartens still exist, but they are much more makeshift.

Although the government gives lip-service to minority rights, there are continual protests, especially in Tibet where the traditional Tibetan Buddhist religious education has been firmly suppressed.

Verdict There have been great efforts to improve life for children, but many children are being left behind.

Iran

* Iran has a population of 66,128,965. About 16 per cent are under six.

Tehran, the capital, is a modern city, but in the rural areas there are many tribal groups, some semi-nomadic. It is a Shia Muslim country, and the clergy are highly influential - and some say repressive - in all areas of life.

The average income in Iran is $6,245. The under-five mortality rate is 33 per 1,000. The literacy rate has been going up and is now about 80 per cent. Child poverty is about 20 per cent. The differences in Iran are mainly between those living in cities, and tribal groupings in the plains and deserts who have very different lifestyles, but who are not looked down upon in the same way as minorities in 'the North'.

As in many Muslim communities, young children are required to attend Madrassah - infant schools where the main task is to learn to recite the Koran in Arabic and to understand the moral teaching of the Koran. Rote learning is the standard method. Although this method of instruction is never used with young children in 'the North', some anthropological studies suggest that, in context, it may be a useful way to learn, and memorising by heart is an important skill in societies that value personal face-to-face dealings in everyday life, rather than relying on written communication.

Agencies like Unicef are trying to introduce integrated child development centres (as in India) and ideas about child development from 'the North'.

Boys and girls are educated separately, and women are required to wear the hijab, a scarf covering their head. But despite the influence of the clergy, Iran is more liberal than some Muslim countries.

Verdict Powerful local traditions rule in this ancient country.

New Zealand (Aotearoa)

* New Zealand is a small country with a population of 3,837,000.

Seventy-one per cent are of European descent, 13 per cent Maori, and the rest from the Pacific Islands. New Zealand has made great efforts to come to terms with its native Maori population. English and Maori are now the national languages and the country is also known as Aotearoa.

The average income is $14,600. Child poverty is about 8 per cent, most of it among the Maori population.

New Zealand had mixed provision, playgroups, nursery schools and private providers. The Government has introduced a new curriculum that draws on Maori traditions and beliefs, called Te Whakiri, or the woven mat.

Alongside the new curriculum, there have been changes in training - a new early childhood degree - and in regulations. The regulations stress the importance of community participation, and all providers, including the private sector, must show that they are responding to their local communities.

There have been some dramatic swings in government, and some of the most radical ideas for developments in pre-school provision have been abandoned.

But the curriculum has inspired efforts in many countries, including the UK.

Verdict New Zealand offers important lessons in curriculum development.

United States of America

* The USA has a population of 288,530,000, of which 11 per are cent descendents of African slaves, 19 per cent Hispanic immigrants from Latin America, 8 per cent Asian, and 1.9 million are native Americans.

The USA is rich - the average income is $34,000 - but this masks enormous inequalities. The wealth of some citizens is truly fabulous, yet there is considerable child poverty among blacks, Hispanics and native Americans, who tend to live in ghettos outside white residential areas. There is no national health service.

There is no national (federal) policy on pre-school provision. States decide their own policies and levels of support. There is very little regulation. There are no agreed curricula, no standards for teacher/caregiver training and no regulations about ratios or health and safety in many states, although there are many private training schemes and curricular programmes which are sold to nurseries as a business.

About 75 per cent of white middle-class children go to some kind of pre-school, mostly voluntary or private, while less than 45 per cent of black children go to pre-school. At its best, for instance in some university- sponsored child development centres, pre-school provision is very good, but mostly it is of a low standard.

Verdict Probably the worst early education and care of any rich country.

Useful books

* Changing Childhoods: Local and Global, edited by Heather Montgomery, Rachel Burr and Martin Woodhead (Chichester: John Wiley,2003). Especially interesting are the discussion on absolute and relative poverty and inequality, and the extracts about Cuba and Brazil.

* Two Worlds of Childhood by Uri Bronfenbrenner (London: Penguin Education, 1970). This is an old book, but it offers one of the best discussions on the communist kindergarten system.

MORE INFORMATION

* Most of the information in this article about 'the North' comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2000 it published a review of early childhood education and care, entitled Starting Strong. See www.oecd.org.

* Most of the information about 'the South' and Transitional countries comes from Unicef, which publishes an annual booklet, The State of the World's Children. The Unicef Innocenti Centre in Florence publishes regular monitoring reports on Transitional countries. See www.unicef.org.

* Unesco has been organising the documentation to the Education for All initiative. See www.unesco.org.

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