History of OMEP

OMEP was begun when the world was still recovering from the catastrophic effects of World War II.   Large areas of towns and cities were devastated, families often deprived of one or more members:  poverty and hunger were the norm for many.   Amid the ruins a small group of European women established an organization to promote peace through education and the extension of human rights to young children.

In 1946 Lady Allen of Hurtwood in Great Britain visited Stockholm to give a lecture.   Lady Allen was a landscape architect by training, whose voluntary work for children included being Chairman of the British Nursery School Association.   Through her marriage to the British pacifist, socialist and internationalist, Clifford Allen, Lady Allen had connections with people from all over the world.   In Stockholm she met the Director of the Pedagogical Training School, Alva Myrdal.   They discussed the new international organization UNESCO which was to be the United Nation’s educational, scientific and cultural organization.   Both women were concerned that UNESCO were considering education as beginning at age six, and did not intend to include pre-school education in its field of activity.   They believed that there was a need for a new organization that would concentrate its efforts on promoting early childhood education throughout the world.

A few weeks later they arranged a meeting in London, attended by representatives from Norway, Sweden and Great Britain, and the possibility of forming a new organization was discussed and approved.   Lady Allen and Alva Myrdal then contacted individuals in various countries, asking them to come to a meeting towards the end of 1946.   Eight countries were represented, a preparatory committee was formed and the delegates made the decision to establish the World Council of Early Childhood Education.  Translated into French, the name became Organisation Mondiale pour l’Education Prescolaire or OMEP.

The committee worked for nearly two years to organise a world conference in Prague in August 1948.   It followed immediately after a UNESCO World Education Seminar.  Those people particularly interested in early childhood stayed on and were joined by delegates from the five continents of the world.  A contemporary report notes

“they came from different races, creeds and political systems, but enriched each other’s lives by sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas about the education needs of young children”.

Three major themes emerged from the conference:

  1. The challenge of educating children for ‘world-mindedness’ instead of ‘war-mindedness’
  2. The importance of positive mental health and the significance of the early years in establishing emotional resilience.
  3. The need for trained teachers with broad and deep understanding of early development.

These themes have been the basis of much of OMEP’s work ever since.

An interim committee was democratically elected and prepared a constitution and by-laws.  The constitution had enough scope and flexibility to adapt to growth and continues to be relevant despite the rapid changes of today’s society.

The new organization was recognised then, as it is now, as the principal structure to bring together people from all over the world, without any criteria other than an aim to share information and initiate actions to benefit young children everywhere.   The first major task was seen as increasing people’s awareness of children’s needs for the right to protection and education.  There was a strong commitment to the principle of ‘educare’ i.e., that care and education are inseparable and that anyone who is responsible for a young child is an “educarer”.

Fifty-eight years later, OMEP members in over 60 countries still work for the well-being of the world’s children.  Within each region are vast differences – geographic, economic and cultural and different traditions of child-rearing and early childhood education.  The strength of OMEP is bringing them together for mutual support and inspiration through practical projects, research programs and an exchange of personnel. 

New Zealand was first recognised as a member of OMEP in 1986.   As a New Zealander, Dr C.E. Beeby (Asst Director-General of Education, UNESCO, former Director of Education New Zealand was present at the meeting of the interim committee which formed OMEP in 1946.