Early childhood education works — it just doesn’t reach those most in need


Opinion: 80% of children in low-income countries still have no access at all to early learning


Read. Play. Love. No, it’s not a new self-help story, but an innovative program to encourage parents in Guyana to read to their children.



It all started back in 2013, when the education ministry measured the school readiness of children entering first grade in remote areas and found that very few were equipped to begin learning.


Around 60% of the children failed to meet the basic prerequisites for reading, fewer than 10% could demonstrate any understanding of text and 40% showed very little or no ability to identify any numbers from 1 to 10.


Together with the government of Guyana, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) developed a program for early childhood care and education with three main pillars: strengthening the skills of teachers; improving teaching and learning materials; and training for parents and primary caregivers.


More than 8,000 children in remote areas of Guyana benefitted from this program. Almost 90% of children now master reading and math skills compared to 37% in 2016.


Using the words of Nicolette Henry, Guyana’s education minister, it’s “a story of growth, a story of hope, and a story of encouragement, particularly for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged population.”


Guyana is just one example of the huge shift in emphasis towards pre-school education in recent years. We know that brain development from birth to the age of five is critical and that early learning, along with play, healthcare and good nutrition, contributes substantially to a child’s prospects in education and as an adult.


The world agrees. For the first time, we have a global commitment on early learning in the UN-agreed Sustainable Development Goal for education, which specifically calls for children’s access to at least one year of quality pre-primary education.


However, while more children are getting access to early learning, those that need it most are still missing out. Positive outcomes are most pronounced among children from vulnerable groups, yet 80% of children in low-income countries still have no access at all to early learning.


GPE, the world’s only partnership and fund solely focused on education in developing countries, has invested about US$200 million in more than 35 partner developing countries to support early childhood care and education. But the overall funding is still very low, despite the evidence that early learning better prepares children for primary school, improves their learning and reduces repetition and drop-out rates, thus making education systems more efficient.


Funding for early childhood education is also not keeping pace with enrolment growth. National spending in developing countries is not enough to provide quality early education services. With private providers accounting for more than half of all enrolled children in pre-primary education, the burden of paying often falls on families.


Finally, conflict is a major and growing impediment to early learning. Fewer than 5% of children in countries affected by conflict have access to pre-primary schooling.


It is clear that we all need to do more  including through aid programs. At the international level, only 2% of foreign aid to basic education goes to the pre-primary sector. Reaching the SDG target will require a significant increase in financial support.


We also urgently need to improve the quality of data, not only on where early childhood education is available, but also on its quality and whether all children have access or just a few.


Only then will we be able to properly ensure that services are effective and reaching the poorest and most marginalised children who stand to benefit most.