Authors: Manos Antoninis and Silvia Montoya*
When children attend early childhood education, they are not just learning their ABCs and 123s, they are learning how to solve problems, live in harmony with others and communicate effectively. Going to pre-primary education increases the chance to grow and flourish in a nurturing and stimulating environment. It is an opportunity to provide children with the skills they need to succeed in school and in life.
Thankfully, early childhood education is something that more and more children are accessing: over the past two decades, the rates of those attending rose from 65% to 75%. Countries have put pen to paper, committing to taking this up a level. As part of a multi-year exercise, they have set national benchmarks for the progress they feel they can make between now and 2030 on helping more young children start their education in their early years, alongside other objectives. On the occasion of the 2023 International Day of Education, UNESCO published a global report, the 2023 SDG4 Scorecard showing how fast countries are progressing towards their national benchmarks on Sustainable Development Goal 4 (quality education). These benchmarks commit countries to together open school doors to 95% of five-year-olds by the 2030 deadline for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
These ambitions are not messing around. Conversely to what you might expect, countries have actually set their targets far higher than one might expect considering how they’ve done in the past. Even if they managed to improve at the rate of the historically fastest-improving quarter of countries, they would only manage to reach the stage where 83% of children were going to early childhood education. At present, therefore, barely one in three countries is on track with their self-set targets. How can we help them speed up?
Having monitored education for the past 20 years, a few clear lessons jump out that can help countries break the speed barriers we’re keen to impart. While simple education reform is not very common, this first example is at least compact. Our recommendation is for countries to legislate and provide for free and compulsory education, which about a half of countries have done so far. 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 is associated with a large increase in participation rates. While one policy change cannot be assessed out of context, there is a clear jump in children’s early education access across these countries post the new legislation.
Where we see these laws lagging is in low income and, more generally, sub-Saharan African countries. For all those who join us in believing in the importance of the foundations that early childhood can bring, Sub-Saharan Africa should be a region where we direct our support over the coming years. Not only are fewer than half of children starting school early, but its population prospects will make the challenge harder over time. It is projected that sub-Saharan Africa will surpass Central and Southern Asia by 2026 as the region with the largest number of 4-5 year olds in the world. This cohort will grow by 1 million on average in the next 20 years. Population growth will slow down but will still reach 100 million in 2069. The region will be the home to a staggering 43% of all five-year-olds on planet earth by the end of the century.
The second recommendation we believe can make a difference is also a governance issue, and relates to the fact that the first education experiences of 40% of children in the world today is with private providers. Much of this trend can be linked to the fact that there was not enough supply related to demand, and private providers grew to fill the gap.
This phenomenon can’t be ignored in some areas of the world. In Oceania, for example, some countries have close to 100% of preschool students enrolled in non-state institutions. These can be for-profit and non-profit organizations, such as child-care centers, preschools, and home-based childcare providers, for example. Their presence can bring significant financial implications, and therefore, barriers, to families, and detract from the original reason they exist in the first place: to increase education for all. With the provision part removed from government’s control, it means that their ability to regulate the quality and equity of the myriad of alternative early childhood education providers – and monitor them – is vital.
For much of the pandemic, the GEM Report team at UNESCO mapped over 200 country profiles on its PEER website to look further into the regulations countries currently have for private providers in early childhood education. What we found is that those covering equity are in the minority: only 26% of countries support specific vulnerable populations’ tuition fee payments and just 15% prohibit non-state providers from operating for profit. On the positive side, however, we also found that turning these numbers on their head could also see a huge surge in participation rates. When governments have regulations in place helping out some of the most marginalized groups with tuition fees, for instance, the percentage of children who participate in organized learning one year before entry to primary school is higher by 13 percentage points, whereas countries with fee-setting regulations have a 7 percentage-point higher participation.
Our third but equally critical recommendation covers the extent to which governments prioritise education in the early years in their spending. We looked at the countries with data from the last two years and found they were spending just 0.43% of GDP on pre-primary education – pittance in comparison to the benefits an early education can bring. There is a clear correlation between how much was spent on public education and the rise of 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% to 60% on average, and is a clear win for improving progress on this issue.
As any education policy maker will tell you, there is no one easy fix for system reform. Sadly, this is the reason the sector fails to attach the funding it needs to transform and deliver to match our expectations. But, where there are lessons that our past mistakes and successes have taught us, we should take them, and not waste further time. Education can and should start early. If we legislate, regulate and finance appropriately, we can help countries’ ambitions to make that happen a reality.
*Silvia Montoya, Director of UNESCO Institute of Statistics