How can every child learn? Start with the power of early childhood education

In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, a preschool teacher fills her rural classroom with playful learning materials, creatively teaching her students and giving them the best start in life to learn. “I still remember the paper birds she made to teach us about numbers,” recalls Milkawit Getnet, age 12, and now in Grade 7. “I still love maths and I want to be a maths teacher.”

Milkawit’s story is one example of how millions of children benefit from preschool, carrying its transformative impacts through their educational journey. It’s also a stark reminder of the 175 million children who are missing out on this critical opportunity, suffering deep inequalities from the start.

A child’s right to education includes the right to learn, starting with the early years

The core of UNICEF’s Education Strategy for 2019–2030 has a clear, ambitious goal: Every child learns. Reaching this goal, and meeting Sustainable Development Goal 4, will be a challenge. With current trends, 1.4 billion school-age children will live in low- and middle-income countries by 2030 – 420 million of them will not learn the most basic skills in childhood, and 825 million — more than half — will not acquire basic secondary-level skills.

The most disadvantaged children need early learning opportunities the most. Yet they have the least access. In low-income countries, only 1 in 5 young children are enrolled in pre-primary education. In Africa, where 1 in 3 children are enrolled in pre-primary education, the poorest children are up to seven times less likely to attend preschool, compared to more advantaged children.

Education budgets for early childhood education (ECE) are lacking, and access to quality preschools is inadequate. In Eastern and Southern Africa, 1.8 per cent of education budgets is allocated to support ECE, while globally UNICEF’s recommended benchmark is 10 per cent.

How can we accelerate progress?

UNICEF has committed 10 per cent of its education resources to ECE and is leading the charge to accelerate efforts in providing early learning opportunities to millions of children by adopting the following routes to action:

  • Support Ministries of education to prioritize and invest in at least one year of pre-primary education.
  • Advocate for at least 10 per cent of education resources to be allocated to ECE, including national education budgets, donor and partner aid.
  • Support governments in developing strong pre-school systems and build capacity to implement ECE at scale – including quality standards, age-appropriate curricula, teacher training, and engaging of families to demand quality preschool for their children.
  • Incorporate ECE in all emergency response plans and budgets and scale up innovations that can ensure access to the world’s most vulnerable pre-schoolers.
  • Leverage the full range of partners, including the private sector, non-profits and faith-based organizations, to expand access to quality ECE.


Progress and momentum in Eastern and Southern Africa

As in other UNICEF regions, Eastern and Southern Africa is fully supporting countries to integrate ECE into their education sector plans; enabling countries to assess the capacity of their education systems to deliver on SDG 4.2 for quality universal pre-primary access; and leveraging additional resources for ECE. The signs of progress are plentiful.

Communities and faith-based groups are organizing to demand and provide better ECE services for children in Comoros, Rwanda and Uganda. South Sudan’s Ministry of Education is committed to raise the ECE allocation in its education budget from 10 per cent to 15 per cent and plans are in motion for increased ECE domestic and donor financing in Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi and Mozambique.

Countries are also linking their investments in early learning with increased effectiveness and efficiency for the entire education system, such as Uganda, where UNICEF and DFID are studying the positive impact of ECE on increasing learning and reducing dropouts.

UNICEF’s vision and commitment to learning starts with quality preschool for all

UNICEF’s overarching vision for education is to accelerate quality learning and skills development for girls and boys – especially those who are marginalized or living in emergencies — from the early years through adolescence.

To achieve this bold vision, we must do all we can to ensure that all children attend quality preschool, giving them the best chance to lead successful lives and build solid foundations for future generations. UNICEF will pursue this vision with every ounce of resource, commitment and professional dedication that we can muster.

To find out more about ‘Every Child Learns’, read UNICEF’s Education Strategy 2019–2020


Rob Jenkins is Chief, Education and Associate Director, Programme Division, UNICEF.

Mohamed Malick Fall is UNICEF’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa.

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  1. Early moments matter. Whoever (father, guardian, etc) address the needs of a child in either stage of life, will bring the child glory, brightness and good future.