A World Ready to Learn: Prioritizing quality early childhood education

April 8, 2019

The Sustainable Development Goals have issued the world a bold challenge: Provide all children with quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education by 2030. The reasons for this aspiration are clear – a solid body of evidence shows that the foundations for learning are largely built in the early years of life, before a child ever crosses the threshold of a primary school. Children who fall behind in these early years often never catch up with their peers, perpetuating a cycle of underachievement and high dropout rates that continue to harm vulnerable young people. Yet despite the proven and lifelong benefits of pre-primary education, half of the pre-primary school-age children in the world today – that is, at least 175 million children –are not enrolled in pre-primary education during these vital years, deepening inequalities and missing a critical investment opportunity.

Good quality pre-primary education sets a strong foundation for learning

Quality pre-primary education is one of the best investments available for ensuring the future success of children today and that of those who will follow in their footsteps. Universal pre-primary education of good quality will bring enormous benefits to children, families, education systems and society at large. Across widely differing countries and circumstances, students equipped with a quality early childhood education are better prepared for the transition to primary school. Pre-primary education sets the stage for a positive transformation in learning outcomes throughout a child’s lifetime. Successful students move more efficiently through the education system, which makes investing in quality early learning opportunities cost-effective, lessening the need for remedial efforts and resources to make up for lost learning.


Global progress in pre-primary enrolment has been slow and uneven

Despite all the evidence pointing to the tremendous promise of making quality pre-primary education universal, in most countries, the expansion of early childhood education has been slow and uneven. There are wide variations in progress among regions, and across and within countries – and these disparities are affecting many millions of the world’s youngest children. In high-income countries, 83 per cent of children are enrolled in pre-primary education compared to only 22 per cent from low-income countries – an extraordinary differential of 61 per cent. Of the 31 countries with the lowest pre-primary enrolment rates, 29 are low- or lower-middle-income countries.[1]

Many low- and lower middle-income countries will not achieve the SDG target for universal pre-primary education. At the current pace of progress, by 2030, gross enrolment rates in pre-primary education in low-income countries will average only 32 per cent, compared to an estimated 86 per cent in high-income countries.These gaps in access to pre-primary education are significant and have distressing implications for child development and educational outcomes.

Access to early childhood education programmes has been uneven, not only across but also within countries

Pre-primary education offers an exceptionally powerful opportunity to break intergenerational cycles of inequity. Yet access to early childhood education programmes has been uneven, not only across but also within countries, as vulnerable children are disproportionately excluded from quality pre-primary education. Household income, the education achieved by a child’s mother and geographical location are key factors that affect children’s attendance in early childhood education. But the strongest and universal factor affecting access to pre-primary education is whether a child lives in a poor or a rich household. On average, the poorest children in low-income countries are eight times less likely than children from the wealthiest families to attend an early childhood education programme. In middle- and high-income countries, children from poor households are four times less likely to participate in pre-primary education.


Shortfalls in domestic and international funding are impeding access to quality pre-primary education

Pre-primary education is deeply underfunded relative to other education levels, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, by both governments and international donors. In general, domestic financing for pre-primary education increased between 2007 and 2017, but financing remains insufficient for all categories of countries. Over the past decade, the share of the education budget devoted to pre-primary education in high-income countries has approached UNICEF’s recommendation of 10 per cent.[2] Lower middle-income countries have gone from a 4.2 per cent education budget share in 2007 to 6.5 per cent in 2017, leading to rapid growth in the gross enrolment ratio over the past 10 years in these countries. Low-income countries have gone from 0.9 per cent in 2007 to just under 2 per cent in 2017, and investment remains far from the levels that are needed. Overall, there is evidence of a gradual shift in priorities, which should serve as a vital motivation for external partners to make large investments in the short-to-middle term as public finances catch up to invest a fully sufficient share of education budgets in the pre-primary subsector.


Across education levels, the distribution of funds is highly inequitable in low- and lower-middle-income countries

Pre-primary education provides the highest return on investment of all education subsectors,[3] as it increases primary school intake, strengthens efficiency and improves learning.[4] Yet, as a general pattern across country income levels, pre-primary education received a smaller share of the education budget than primary, secondary or tertiary education during the past 10 years. In 2017, low-income countries on average spent nearly half of their education budget on primary education (46.9 per cent), followed by spending on secondary education (25.7 per cent) and post-secondary education (21.7 per cent). Only 1.95 per cent was spent on pre-primary education.


Education systems are not supplying sufficient numbers of capable pre-primary teachers

One of the greatest challenges developing countries face is the need to staff the pre-primary subsector with teachers who can nurture a love of learning in young children. Qualified teachers are already in short supply, and yet a massive increase in their numbers is required as countries look to fulfill the promise of universal pre-primary education.

The pupil-teacher ratio is significantly lower among high-income (14 to 1), upper-middle income (17 to 1) and lower-middle-income countries (20 to 1) than in low-income countries, where it averaged 34 to 1 in 2017. Estimating the pupil-teacher ratio under universal coverage of pre-primary education – that is the total number of pre-primary-age children in a country against the number of pre-primary teachers currently in the system – points to one of the major challenges of the pre-primary education workforce.  The average ratio of pre-primary-age children to teachers in low-income countries in 2017 then increases from 34 to 1 to 216 to 1.

Pre-primary education for all: Immediate action, driven by a long-term vision

Pre-primary education offers a vital foundation for children’s learning and should be an indispensable component of an entire education system. Providing universal access to pre-primary education is a reachable target, but it requires a practical and bold approach that addresses present realities. This is not a ‘last mile’ challenge: Many low- and lower-middle-income countries are still near the start of constructing or rebuilding the pre-primary component of their education systems.

Countries should pursue smart, proven strategies that can help them embark on the path towards quality universal pre-primary education while remaining sensitive to present realities. By setting priorities and navigating trade-offs, it is possible to build education systems that will place millions of children today on the path to fulfilling their potential.

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Learn more about  what UNICEF calls for to achieve universal pre-primary education


[1] Computations by UNICEF, based on data from the UIS global database, 2018. The indicator is gross enrolment ratio of pre-primary education, both sexes, in most recent year (2010–2017).

[2] UNICEF. (2017). Early moments matter for every child. UNICEF.

[3] García, J.L., Heckman, J.J., Leaf, D.E. and Prados, M.J., 2016. The life-cycle benefits of an influential early childhood program (No. w22993). National Bureau of Economic Research.

[4] Jaramillo, A., & Mingat, A. (2008). Can Early Childhood Programs Be Financially Sustainable in Africa?. Africa’s Future—Africa’s Challenge: Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) in Sub-Saharan Africa, 459-85.