(Texte disponible uniquement en anglais)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Child poverty is a worldwide phenomenon that concerns all of us. Every child deserves the best possible start in life. Unfortunately, we are far from reaching this goal today. Poverty is still very present in our societies, including in the developed world. For this reason, I heartily welcome this transatlantic forum on inclusive early years. This first of three gatherings will explore further challenges and opportunities that benefit children in their early childhood. Acting in the best interests of the child should be our guiding principle.
For many years now, I, and the Fund that carries my name, have been highlighting the importance of early childhood. This life stage constitutes a brief but crucial phase that has a clear and lasting effect on one's future. We must therefore pay particular attention to it.
In this context, a lack of financial means is not the only issue requiring discussion. Though lack of money is indeed a trigger that causes many problems for young children: in terms of health, shelter, education, employment and participation in social life. Poverty is often passed from one generation to the next. It is difficult to avoid this. Some people are more vulnerable to a life of poverty than others. Single parents, for example, immigrant and large families, and low-income households in general. They have to face a variety of circumstances they do not always control. It is well recognized that a young child raised in a poor socio-economic environment has fewer chances in life. A lack of food and affection during the early months or years impacts every aspect of a child's development. The damage to physical, intellectual, linguistic, emotional and social development can cause a backlog that is difficult to overcome.
It is important to invest in our children - and the earlier the better. I favour a constructive and positive approach in the interaction between children, parents and the childcare environment. A positive concept of care and education, in which children can develop their full potential and talents. More than anything else, parents need to play a leadership role. But the support of teachers and all those directly or indirectly concerned with children's well-being is vital too.
It is my belief, moreover, that more attention should be given to the poverty issue in training programmes for professionals involved in pre-school development - especially teachers and healthcare workers.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
High standards in early education and care are linked to better health and better emotional and cognitive development. Investing in early childhood and learning experiences can reduce social inequalities, and increase the chances of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty. Generalised and equitable access to high quality, universal services is needed during the pre-school years in particular. It will give parents and children more confidence and will stimulate their social inclusion. Threshold fear is, on the whole, high for immigrant and low-income families. I look forward to learning more about the results of your debate on this particular issue in the coming two days.
However, the fight against poverty can only succeed if parents and families get the necessary support to avoid a repetition of their own poor situation. We must identify places where parents can ask for advice and assistance in educating their children. Places where they can find information and answers to their questions and their own experiences. Like children, parents learn from dialogue with each other.
I would like to conclude by stressing, once again, that good quality education is essential. I have witnessed this at first hand, in my own country and abroad. A good education is the key to a better future for children, youngsters and society as a whole.
Children do have hopes for the future and are eager to participate in building their society. When you listen to them, you realize that their stories are not always negative. But they need opportunities they can explore and develop. We have a huge responsibility to provide a world fit for them, a world in which they can flourish.
I encourage this transatlantic forum on inclusive early years to take full advantage of this unique gathering: to debate the challenges ahead, to explore policy issues, strategies and good practice.
May your discussions be fruitful!
I thank you.