Achieving the 2030 Education Goal by focusing on early learning

by Michelle Neuman, Program Director, Results for Development Institute. This blog is part of a series of last minute reflections before the new education agenda is set in stone. 

CaptureA quarter of a century after global education leaders met in Jomtien, Thailand, and boldly announced that “Learning begins at birth”, it is reassuring to see that early learning now features more prominently on the global development agenda:

Target 4.2: “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”

The inclusion of this target is an important accomplishment, and reflects the widespread evidence from low- and high-resource contexts alike of the importance of nurturing children’s development, care and education well before they begin formal schooling. This week, the UN will formally adopt the entire Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework under the themes of: People, Planet, Prosperity, and Peace. Reaching these lofty goals will depend on many factors, and delivering adequate attention to children’s early cognitive, socio-emotional, language, and physical well-being will be critical. To reach the 4 ‘P’s’ of the broader SDG framework, there are 4 ‘I’s’ representing vital issues that need to be addressed in order to make quality early learning a reality for all.

  1. Inequalities
Credit: Alamgir Khan
Credit: Alamgir Khan

Progress in expanding early childhood programs around the world has been encouraging but uneven. Although access to pre-primary education has expanded in every region since 1999, Latin America and the Caribbean boasts a gross enrolment rate (GER) of almost 75%, whereas Sub-Saharan Africa lags behind with a GER of about 19%. Even before the first year of preschool, children from lower socio-economic groups, ethnic and linguistic minority backgrounds, and children with disabilities are more likely to miss out on quality early learning opportunities.

Supporting parents so they can provide stimulating home environments is an important first step to address inequalities. Approaches that expand systems are needed, but simply making poorly performing preschools bigger is not enough. This will not be possible without improving the capacity of the early child care workforce. These professionals will require better training, support and working conditions. Promising approaches to this challenge can already be found. One program in Ghana, Lively Minds, trains and empowers kindergarten teachers and mothers from rural areas in for engaging young children in play-based, creative activities. Leveraging community resources in this way represents the kind of innovative, locally-sourced approaches that can reach underserved families.

  1. Integration

Capture1Young children’s care, development, and learning are intertwined and depend on a multitude of different sectors and services. While a separate education target for early learning is a big step toward ensuring greater visibility and policy attention to young children, equally important are the goals and targets for poverty reduction, undernutrition and stunting, child and maternal mortality, violence prevention, birth registration, and more.

We know that children cannot learn well if they are unhealthy, unsafe, or hungry. Cross-sector approaches as in India’s Integrated Child Development Services, which includes nutrition, immunization, health check-ups for the mother and child, and informal preschool demonstrate the value of comprehensive interventions. Another promising strategy is to deliver child development messages to parents through existing home visiting programs, as in Jamaica and Pakistan, and cash transfer programs with a parent training component, as in Niger and Colombia. What matters is not where the targets are situated within the goals, but that young children are supported to reach their full potential.

  1. Investment

Countries underinvest in the early years, spending on average less than 5% of their education budgets and less than 0.1% of gross domestic product on pre-primary education. [Tweet this] Despite limited government funding, parent demand for early learning opportunities is strong, as in some urban areas of Sub-Saharan Africa where the growth in private preschools has surged. Yet, high fees, limited regulation, and uneven supply remain significant problems for many poor families.

The EFA GMR Team estimates that overall expenditure per child will need to triple – from US$258 to US$854 – to achieve one year of universal, quality pre-primary education alone. Achieving this increase will require new sources of public and private funding, as well as innovative financing mechanisms to improve affordability for parents. Here experiences like that of Chile, which doubled public spending from 1999 to 2012 through a mixed delivery system that increased subsidies for the most disadvantaged children, are heartening.

  1. Indicators

CaptureLastly, none of these important issues can truly be addressed without adequate monitoring and evaluation. Poor data has hampered efforts to date to fully document the status of young children. The broad scope of Target 4.2 means that collecting more and better data on pre-primary enrolment will be necessary, but not sufficient. We also will need information and ways to assess provision for 0-2 year olds, which tends to be less formal, small scale and often private. It is encouraging that new tools are available to track child development, including UNICEF’s MICS ECD index. A measure of responsive, stimulating parenting to capture infant-toddler well-being is also under consideration, and hopefully will remain in the final list of indicators. These data should be disaggregated by gender, disability status and key socio-demographic variables.

As the global education community rallies around the new agenda for 2030, we need to ensure that our youngest learners receive comprehensive policy attention and sufficient means for turning promises into realities. This will require coordinated action at all levels to address inequality in early learning opportunities, scale-up innovative approaches to quality, build bridges across sectors, strengthen and support the workforce, and explore new models for financing early childhood systems.



  1. Which cognitive psychologists, cognitive scientists, developmental psychologists, or other learning scientists were consulted in order to set the 2030 education goals most realistically?

  2. I am upbeat that if the root causes of the problems facing pre-primary education for children is solved then these laudable goals will be achieve. I make a pledge to support all the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure that a better and peaceful world is achieved.

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