The world is falling behind on early childhood education

This is putting many children – especially among the poor – at a serious disadvantage.

Children hold a cord to maintain social distance in a kindergarten, as in-person classes return after over a year of online lessons as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico August 30, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
One in three countries is on track with its own national targets for early childhood education, according to a recent UNESCO report [File: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Pre-primary school is fun – serious fun. Music, storytelling, movement, outdoor play, role play and drama give children basic literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills. These are the building blocks of a child’s education that put them on the right track for a life of learning. They give them the solid foundations needed to succeed in school and life.

Children who do not have the chance to start their education early are put at a serious disadvantage before they even start school. The importance of early childhood learning was highlighted in Born to Learn, a Spotlight report from UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report focusing on Africa released last year.

One study showed that students who attended some form of organised early childhood education in 13 African countries scored 66 points higher in reading, on average, than those who did not, which is equivalent to more than a year of learning. The gap reached about 100 points, or more than two years of learning, in Burkina Faso and Guinea.

But despite the importance of starting school early, barely one in three countries is on track with its own national targets for early childhood education, as illustrated in the new SDG4 Scorecard report by UNESCO. Several countries, including Algeria, Liberia, Nepal and Bahrain, are not progressing at all.

One core factor explaining this slow progress is that policies and finances are not in place to support countries’ education targets. When an inadequate amount of a state budget is allocated to early childhood education, the quality of public provision is clearly going to suffer.

This has led parents to opt for private options, which are too costly. Today, almost four out of 10 children around the world enrolled in pre-primary education are in private schools.

The importance of finance cannot be denied. In Ghana, for instance, those who choose to put their child in a private pre-primary school have to pay on average six percent of annual earnings, if they are rich, and 17 percent if they are poor; the equivalents in Ethiopia are four percent and 21 percent respectively.

In countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the net childcare cost for a two-earner family with two children aged two and three is 17 percent of women’s average earnings, ranging from zero in Germany and Italy to one-third in Ireland and Slovakia, to half in Japan and the United Kingdom.

Therefore, it should not be a surprise, that the richest are far more likely to privately educate their child, while the poorest either opt for the lower quality public option or don’t invest in that education level at all. And so, disadvantages deepen.

The only way we can move forward is to share lessons between countries on what works. We did just this in our latest report, assessing what the policies were that had enabled countries to achieve fast progress. Three recommendations emerged from this analysis and they all related to the cost barriers to access.

First, there is a clear correlation between how much was spent on public education and the rise in participation rates as a result. Doubling spending from 0.25 to 0.50 of GDP, we found, triples participation rates in public preschools from 20 percent to 60 percent on average and is a clear win for improving progress on this issue.

Second, given the predominance of private providers in pre-primary education, we found that government regulations of these providers matter. UNESCO’s 2021-2022 Global Education Monitoring Report analysed 211 education systems and found that, while 97 percent of countries regulate approval, licensing and the establishment of private pre-primary education providers, only 26 percent of countries support specific vulnerable populations’ tuition fees. And countries that have such equity provisions in place are doing better in terms of access to early childhood education.

Lastly, the rules count. It is important to legislate and offer free and compulsory pre-primary education. But only about half of the countries in the world have done this so far. While one policy change cannot be assessed out of context, there is a clear jump in children’s early education access across countries that put such legislation in place. Since 2015, for example, the introduction of three years of free education in Armenia, four years in Uzbekistan and three – and later five – years in Azerbaijan has been associated with a large increase in participation rates. In Azerbaijan, for instance, participation rates soared from just over 30 percent in 2012 to more than 80 percent in 2020.

While there is no magic wand to overcome all educational challenges, there are clear lessons we can draw from looking at existing policies. These can help drastically improve education outcomes globally. Education can and should start early. If they legislate, regulate and finance appropriately, countries can certainly reach their early education goals.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to fix a confusing sentence.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance