How pre-school can transform children’s chances

Young children are ready to learn, but their early experiences are crucial in facilitating their learning. As we explain in our new policy paper on early childhood care and education, there is striking evidence that extending pre-school access to the poorest and most vulnerable children can boost their education and livelihood opportunities later in life. In our second blog post for Education for All Global Action Week (April 22-28), we look at some of that evidence.

The more time children spend in pre-school, the better their performance in primary school. Recent evidence based on the 2009 PISA survey shows that in 58 of 65 countries, 15-year-old students who had attended at least a year of pre-primary school outperformed students who had not, even after accounting for socio-economic background.

Detailed evidence based on long-term studies from high income countries shows that pre-school contributes to school readiness and later academic achievement through the development of non-cognitive skills, such as attention, effort, initiative and behaviour, as well as cognitive skills in reading and mathematics. There is now a growing body of evaluations from developing countries highlighting the benefits of pre-schooling.

The benefits of pre-school for non-cognitive skills are demonstrated by a study in Argentina. As well as having higher test scores, third graders who had one year of public pre-primary school in an urban area showed improved attention, effort, class participation and discipline. In rural Gansu, Shaanxi and Henan, China, 4- and 5-year-olds who had attended pre-primary education scored 20% higher on a school readiness scale than those who had not.

Studies from many countries, including Chile, India and Madagascar, show the contribution of pre-school to overall cognitive abilities. In Chile, children entering primary school who had enrolled in public pre-schools or child care centres had higher cognitive skill scores. In rural Maharashtra, India, a project that improved the pre-school component of the Integrated Child Development Services had significant positive effects on the developmental and cognitive outcomes of 4- to 6-year-olds. In Madagascar, primary school children who had attended pre-school showed a 2.7 month benefit in terms of cognitive development and a 1.6 month benefit in terms of language and motor skills.

The effects can be particularly beneficial in addressing disadvantage. In a study in Argentina, the effect of having attended pre-school on third grade test scores was twice as large for students from poor backgrounds than for students from non-poor backgrounds.

Other research has demonstrated the benefits of pre-school in terms of developing specific cognitive skills. Fourth grade primary school children in Brazil who had attended day care and/or kindergarten scored higher in mathematics. In rural Bangladesh, an aid-funded project run by local NGOs set up 1,800 pre-schools, provided them with better materials and improved the quality of teaching. Participating children performed better in speaking, reading, writing and mathematics by the second grade of primary school than those who did not attend pre-school. In rural Guizhou, China, first-grade children who had attended kindergarten had literacy and mathematics scores significantly better than other children’s.

Attending pre-school also tends to increase the number of years of education that children eventually attain. In Uruguay, 15-year-olds who had attended a public or private pre-school accumulated 0.8 years more education, were 27% more likely to still be in school and were less likely to repeat a grade than siblings who had not attended. In Mozambique, attending pre-school increased the probability of enrolling in primary school by 24%.

Pre-school attendance can also lead to higher earnings and employment outcomes in adulthood. The Early Enrichment Project in Turkey in the 1980s – which included a pre-schooling intervention – targeted children of low income migrant families whose mothers had little education. Two decades later, participants were found to have better educational attainment and occupational status than those who had not participated (Kagitcibasi et al., 2009).

As we emphasized in our first blog post for Global Action Week, governments need to take action on six fronts to make sure that all children reap the benefits of pre-schooling – benefits that extend not only to individuals but to the societies they live in, and their countries’ economies.

Photo: A child at Mobarakpur Community Clinic in Kulaura Upazila, northeastern Bangladesh. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)



  1. The early experience of children reflects in their learning. I agree with you the more time children spend in preschool classes, the better their performance in primary school. It also increases the number of years of education of child.

  2. This is great stuff. Do you know of any organisation (INGO or Governmental Programme) which is starting pre-school provision, of any kind, in any developing country. There is a lot of material pointing toward the need for a change in policy, but practice seems thin on the ground? Is that a fair critique?

  3. A great read! I guess its not so much about how many years or months of extra schooling that pre school adds to a child, but its about how in the formative years the child is engaged in a manner that provides greater exposure and that too maybe at times in a subconscious manner.

  4. Pre-schools definitely plays a vital role in children’s education life. So we should choose it very carefully while sending them to pre-school. By the way, it is a good post.

  5. I completely agree. It’s not so much about how many years or months of extra schooling that preschool adds to a child, but it’s about how in the formative years the child is engaged in a manner that provides greater exposure and that too may be at times in a subconscious manner.

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