Skip to main content

Topic / Social Policy

Early Childhood Education Potential Is Still Highly Untapped

It is always surprising how small children can understand so much about their surroundings. These little ones can’t say a word, but they can read gestures and words, communicate in their own way, and make themselves understood.

It is also amazing how every interaction and experience during the very early years of life can have a long-lasting impact on these little individuals. The evaluation of the Perry Preschool program, an early childhood development (ECD) intervention targeting African American low-income families, showed long term and intergenerational effects on beneficiaries, their siblings and their children. From an economic perspective, the findings were particularly impressive indicating that the intervention could deliver a 13% per year return on investment.1

“Children of participants were less likely to be suspended from school, and more likely to complete regular or any other form of high school and to be employed full-time with some college experience.” Basically, this high-quality preschool coupled with home visits for children contributed to upward mobility in the next generation, a potential pathway to break the poverty cycle.

“These are middle-class mothers. They [the teachers] basically did for these kids what a middle-class mother does,” mentioned James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning economist known for his research on the economics of ECD, in an interview.2 In a way, the program gave participants the type of experiences that children from middle-class homes had.

But despite increasing evidence and promising influence, access to high quality ECE remains low, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), ironically this is exactly the population for which these interventions could make the most difference.

Deep Diving Into the Incomplete Efforts Towards Early Learning

Inequality in the development of socio-emotional, cognitive, and physical skills in the early years can lead to negative social and economic outcomes in the future.3 Stressful experiences are particularly influential on brain development. We all face risk factors in life, but these can be more problematic when “severe, persistent, and occurring in the absence of protective relationships with caring adults.”4 Children from LMICs are exposed to more risks, hindering their opportunities from the very early stages of their life.5

An estimated 250 million children under five years old (43%) are exposed to poverty or stunting and more than one-third of preschool-aged children living in LMICs are struggling in either cognitive or social-emotional development.6

Figure 1. Attendance to Pre-Primary Center. Dashboard from SDG indicators.

In this context, early childhood education (ECE) provides an opportunity for change, not only for children but also their families. Children who participate in quality ECE are more likely to begin primary school on time and less likely to drop out.7 From a broader perspective, some even argue that ECE could improve the efficiency of education systems and increase women employment opportunities and their business profits, who are the ones who devote more time to childcare.8, 9

But access and quality remain a challenge. There have been improvements in many countries, nonetheless poor infrastructure, limited play and learning materials, and low-quality teacher training and reduce its potential.10 Latin America has made significant progress in terms of access, with programs such as Crece Contigo in Chile and Uruguay or Cuna Más in Peru but scaling and coherent models that work across institutions with high quality, is still problematic.11

Figure 2. Participation in ECE by Region

In that context, resource availability is an important constraint. In LMICs, governments allocate only about 3% of their education budgets to ECE compared to 9% in high-income;12 without resources, sustainable and high quality ECE will be unlikely. As Heckman puts it, “you get what you pay for.”13

Often, the multisectoral approach of early childhood development can paralyze or overcomplicate action without the right strategic approach. The early years include early education, but also nutrition, social protection, maternal health. It can basically involve all periods from pregnancy until official entrance to the education system at age 6. Given that this will likely involve many sectors and institutions, it can more easily lead to implementation challenges if the right institutional structures are not in place.14

What Can Governments Do to Start Moving Forward?

Awareness about the importance of the early years is increasingly known worldwide, but effective system-level implementation is lacking. In order to ensure access to quality ECE for the most vulnerable children, effective structures, evidence, and political buy-in are essential.

  • Adopt a system thinking approach: Initiatives and stakeholders around ECE are often fragmented. There are many organizations implementing ECE programs in isolation with limited communication, coordination and cohesion. Applying a system thinking approach that involves mapping and consolidating these efforts could ensure the best use of the resources, and leverage what is available. Despite early intervention going beyond education, some studies have found that it is more persuasive for decision makers when framed as an education issue that eases school readiness. Therefore, creating departments within the Ministry of Education to coordinate these efforts across several institutions can be an effective alternative and signal an “institutional anchor” that provides governance and guidance.15 But there is not one model that fits all.

For example, Jamaica’s Early Childhood Commission within the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information has an inter-agency mechanism which brings together diverse stakeholders to advance a common ECD agenda.16 Or Chile Crece Más, which it is instead located within the Ministry of Social Development and Family, with a multisectoral approach, it supports families starting from pregnancy until children enter the education system.17

  • Generate data and evidence to build awareness and adapt programs: In the sector, several knowledge gaps exist, including a lack of evidence from LMICs, unclear definitions of what constitutes quality access, and limited data on learning outcomes. These present practical obstacles in policy formulation, as the specifics of program design are often unavailable.

Technical education specialists should extend beyond impact-level results to describe the characteristics and components of interventions, implementation challenges, and associated costs. Furthermore, although collecting data on learning outcomes is resource-intensive, omitting this step can reduce efforts to understand the problem and assess progress toward quality and learning goals. Such insights are crucial for persuading policymakers of the relevance and potential of ECE programs.18, 19 They also support the argument for prioritizing what may appear as competing priorities within the education system. The learning crisis, persistent rates of out-of-school children, and low transition rates to secondary education remain at the top of the agenda, but ECE could be framed as a facilitator.

  • Mainstream ECE within the national education agenda and system: similar to the above, introducing ECE as part of education policy agenda could allow to leverage funding. The strategy has proven effective in other countries such as Jordan, Lao, Mali, and Mongolia. Similarly, in Ethiopia, the government aligned or introduced pre-primary within primary schools. After many years providing guidance and oversight to non-state actors delivering formal and non-formal ECE services, the Ministry of Education centralized what were previously isolated efforts and expanded the O-Class, which is “an optional, fee-free year prior to entering Grade 1.” Between 2010 and 2016 the enrollment rate for ECE increased from 5 to 50%. However, with no sustainable budget over time and limited donor support, access and financing vary across regions, potentially deepening inequalities.20

It is important to note again that early development is more comprehensive, involving health and social protection. Despite early learning could be at the center, serving as a coordinator and central actor to receive further assistance from other Ministries would be key.

  • Untangle the tradeoff between quality and scale: Adapting to the local needs and context, which entails being flexible and having timely available data to inform decision making and adapt the program as needed to the specific context. Similarly, leveraging the resources and efforts that are already available, coordinated by a central agency, is also necessary for meaningful impact. In this action point, international stakeholders, UN agencies and donors can play a role not only in increasing attention on the topic but especially providing technical support.

ECE is far from the silver bullet of development. As Dr. Yousafzai, a Professor of Child Development and Health at Harvard University, mentioned, “it won’t solve all problems, since children continue to face risk factors throughout adolescence, another critical period.” However, from a policy perspective, it is logical to begin leveling the playing field during the early years. Ensuring that children acquire the skills early, increasing their chances of overcoming life’s challenges and upward mobility.

  1. James J. Heckman and Ganesh Karapakula, “Intergenerational and Intragenerational Externalities of the Perry Preschool Project,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers No. 25889, May 2019. ↩︎
  2. Hidden Brain, “What’s Not on the Test,” ↩︎
  3. James J. Heckman, “The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education,” American Educator 35, no. 1 (2011): 31. ↩︎
  4. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, “The Science of Early Childhood Development,” 2007, ↩︎
  5. Susan P. Walker, Theodore D. Wachs, Julie Meeks Gardner, Betsy Lozoff, Gail A. Wasserman, Ernesto Pollitt, and Julie A. Carter, “Child Development: Risk Factors for Adverse Outcomes in Developing Countries,” Lancet 369, no. 9556 (2007): 145-157. ↩︎
  6. Maureen M. Black, Susan P. Walker, Lia C.H. Fernald, Christopher T. Andersen, Ann M. DiGirolamo, Chunling Lu, Dana C. McCoy et al., “Advancing Early Childhood Development: From Science to Scale 1,” Lancet 389, no. 10064 (2017): 77. ↩︎
  7. Mahalaqua Nazli Khatib, Abhay Gaidhane, Mahjabeen Ahmed, Deepak Saxena, and Zahiruddin Quazi Syed, “Early Childhood Development Programs in Low Middle-Income Countries for Rearing Healthy Children: A Systematic Review,” Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research 14, no. 1 (2020): 1-7. ↩︎
  8. Solène Delecourt and Anne Fitzpatrick, “Childcare Matters: Female Business Owners and the Baby-Profit Gap,” Management Science 67, no. 7 (2021): 4455-4474. ↩︎
  9. World Bank, “Nearly 350 Million Children Lack Quality Childcare in the World,” 2021, ↩︎
  10. Michelle J. Neuman and Shawn Powers, “Political Prioritization of Early Childhood Education in Low- and Middle-Income Countries,” International Journal of Educational Development 86 (2021): 102458. ↩︎
  11. Rubio Codina, ¿Cómo escalar programas de mejora del desarrollo infantil y alivio a la pobreza cuidando su calidad?” 2023, ↩︎
  12. Asma Zubairi and Pauline Rose, “Leaving the Youngest Behind: Declining Aid to Early Childhood Education,” Their World, April 9, 2019, ↩︎
  13. Hidden Brain, “What’s Not on the Test.” ↩︎
  14. Neuman and Powers, “Political Prioritization of Early Childhood Education in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.” ↩︎
  15. Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Alice J. Wuermli, Abbie Raikes, Sharon Kim, and Sarah B. Kabay, “Toward High‐Quality Early Childhood Development Programs and Policies at National Scale: Directions for Research in Global Contexts,” Social Policy Report 31, no. 1 (2018): 1-36. ↩︎
  16. Neuman and Powers. “Political Prioritization of Early Childhood Education in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.” ↩︎
  17. Ministry of Social Development and Family, “Chile Crece Más (ex Chile Crece Contigo),” 2023, ↩︎
  18. Benjamin Piper, Katherine A. Merseth, and Samuel Ngaruiya, “Scaling Up Early Childhood Development and Education in a Devolved Setting: Policy Making, Resource Allocations, and Impacts of the Tayari School Readiness Program in Kenya,” Global Education Review 5, no. 2 (2018): 47-68. ↩︎
  19. Emily Vargas-Barón, “Going to Scale: Early Childhood Development in Latin America,” The RISE Institute, March 2009, ↩︎
  20. Janice H. Kim, “Preschool Participation and Students’ Learning Outcomes in Primary School: Evidence from National Reform of Pre-Primary Education in Ethiopia,” International Journal of Educational Development 94 (2022): 102659. ↩︎