A world ready to learn

Do you remember playing?

Do you remember playing with a favorite toy?

Do you remember playing with friends?

Early childhood education in its best form gives opportunities for children to learn through playing. It brings their ideas to life, builds relationships and broadens their world. It sets in motion a positive cycle of learning throughout a child’s life.

A child’s most important steps happen before they set foot in a primary school. By their fifth birthday, children’s brains are 90% developed and the foundations for success at school and in later life are in place. This makes a child’s early years a critical window of opportunity –  to set the foundations for life-long success, first at school, and later in life.

Participation in pre-primary programmes boosts children’s school readiness and improves their chances to succeed in attaining basic literacy and math skills in the early grades.

A young girl holds up a red rope above her head as she looks at other toys on the table in front of her.
© UNICEF/UN0199350/NooraniA young girl child plays with creative toys that helps develop her motor skills in a special classroom for children with disabilities at the LEC of Ali-Sabbieh in Djibouti.

The case for investing in the early years of a child’s life is strong and undeniable. Yet, today, 50 percent of preschool age children are missing out on pre-primary opportunities and this sub-sector continues to be the blind spot for both domestic and international financing. There is an urgent need to reverse these trends and tackle the challenges of financing, quality and equity in access.

In low income countries, 85 percent of children do not have access to pre-primary opportunities. Less than 1% of international aid for education went to early child programmes during 2012-2015.

Facing the challenge

At the Global Education Meeting in Brussels, Belgium in early December, the OECD, UNESCO and UNICEF brought together experts and practitioners in the field of early childhood education to address the challenges of financing, quality and equity in accessing early childhood education. We asked them, “How can we jointly deliver on the promise of meeting the SDG target for universal quality pre-primary education?” The panelists shared first-hand experience and documented evidence to make recommendations on how to deliver:

First, we need to increase financing for pre-primary education to at least 10 percent% of education budgets. The Government of Mongolia has devoted 23 percent of the education budget to pre-primary education. The Government believes a proportionate budget is possible through a strong foundational legal environment and prioritizing policies that strengthen the value of early childhood education programmes, without compromising primary and secondary education.

School children as a human train go around a classroom as their teacher looks on.
© UNICEF/Bangladesh/2018/KironStudents of the BRAC Pre-Primary School are playing with each other after their class time, West Nondipara, Rampura in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Next, we need governments to take a progressive universalist approach to expansion of services, ensuring access for the most marginalized children is prioritized. In Colombia, the enrolment rate in ECE services has doubled in the last 8 years. The Government used a mix of strategies including legislation, financing, working directly with educators at local level, and working with communities to understand the needs of those not accessing quality ECE, particularly those in indigenous populations. And we know that children with disabilities are some of the hardest to reach children of pre-primary age. Governments are beginning to address these challenges, but there is space to make an impact in not only delivery, but also norms and attitudes around children with disabilities.

We need strategic and systematic investments to improve the quality of early childhood education. Estonia has consistently championed ECE and especially the quality of services for all children. One hurdle for the quality of services was reflected with lower salaries and certification standards for ECE teachers. Estonia worked to equalize salaries for teachers at pre-primary levels to be consistent with the rest of the levels of education and to attract highly qualified candidates in the profession.

And finally, one of the key ingredients to delivering on the promise of universal quality pre-primary education is partnerships — governments alone might not be able to meet this ambitious goal. They will need support from international partners, donors, private sector and civil society. They will need also need to leverage available resources in their countries and strengthen partnerships with other countries to share best practices and lessons learned.

A small boy plays with building blocks on the floor as a small girl beside him in a traditional red dress looks on.
© UNICEF/Mongolia/2018/MatasNandin-Erdene (5) is excited to go to the mobile ger kindergarten, where she plays with her friend Khulan. “I like going to this kindergarten because I get to play with my friends and still come back home in the afternoon to be with my family”, she says.

Acting on the vision for universal pre-primary education

The participants of the Global Education Meeting – made up of governments, multilateral organizations, civil society, educators, youth and the private sector–agreed to the Brussels Declaration. It outlines a vision of ‘leaving no-one behind’, where legislation and policies support education and training systems to be more equitable and inclusive. It ‘requires that all children and youth have access to quality early childhood development, care and education, encouraging at least one year of free and compulsory pre-primary education.’

This vision for universal early childhood education is critical. However, words and statements mean little if action does not accompany them. As far as we’re concerned–we have no choice but to act on the evidence. We must place quality pre-primary education at the heart of education plans and policies across countries. We must and can do more to make it a reality for every child. We cannot miss this window of opportunity.

Read more about financing in pre-primary education — Bright and Early: How financing pre-primary education gives every child a fair start in life


Andreas Schleicher is Director for Education and Skills at the OECD.

Jordan Naidoo is Director of Division for Education 2030 Support and Coordination at UNESCO.

Jo Bourne is Associate Director of Education at UNICEF.

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  1. Pre-primary education is quite relevant but most parents in sub Saharan Africa hold a contrary belief. They say children of this age should learn home basics before getting integrated into the outside society. A lot of sensitization is called for.

  2. Burden in making the dream on early childhood education a reality needs extra commitments by the government, private sectors, and non profit organizations. The most critical aspect in the issue of quality education delivery that has not been carefully addressed not only in early childhood education or basic education but in education generally is the issue of qualified teachers who can deliver quality education. However, it is one of items of vision 2030. This provision of qualified teachers by 2030 globally is not a small task as one may think of, experts need to start right before now, and it really need strong financial commitment.