Target 4.2 – What is at stake for monitoring progress on early childhood education?


 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

4.2.jpgThe SDG target on early childhood development, care and education is the only one where two global indicators have been proposed: the participation rate in pre-primary education, and the proportion of children who are developmentally on track. This reflects both a great interest in early learning foundations but also uncertainties over the feasibility of measuring early childhood development outcomes.

Target 4.2 reaffirms the international community’s focus on ensuring strong foundations for all children in the youngest age group through early childhood care and education. Monitoring the concepts in the target poses at least two challenges: first, there is not yet sufficient information on how many – and which – children benefit from pre-primary education for at least one year; and, second, while the target goes beyond care and education to early childhood development, a monitoring mechanism for the latter is still at an early stage.

Improving the sources of data for measuring early childhood education participation

Comparing participation rates across countries is more difficult for pre-primary than for primary and secondary education. First, relatively few countries have free and/or compulsory pre-primary education: it is compulsory in 50 countries, and free and compulsory for at least one year in just 38.

Second, pre-primary education age groups and starting ages are less standardized than at other levels. The pre-primary education gross enrolment ratio has traditionally been used to monitor participation. It expresses the total number of children enrolled in pre-primary education as a percentage of all children of pre-primary school age as defined by each country. Globally, this ratio was 44% in 2014.

However, this ratio underestimates the percentage of children who have been in pre-primary school for at least one year, which is the focus of the Education 2030 Framework for Action. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics has introduced a new indicator, which shows that, globally, about 67% of children one year younger than the primary school entrance age were enrolled in pre-primary or primary education in 2014.

This is a considerably improved indicator. Nevertheless, an obvious disadvantage is that it includes children who enrol early in primary school, some of whom may have not attended pre-school, which means that enrolment in pre-school is slightly overestimated.

This indicator is close to, but does not always coincide with, evidence from household surveys. Household surveys estimate previous experience of pre-primary education among first-grade students based on questions addressed to their parents and guardians. They have the advantage of tracking attendance levels by individual characteristics other than sex. Among 3- to 4-year-olds in about 50 low and middle income countries, children in the richest households were almost six times as likely as the poorest children to attend early childhood education.

Household surveys may also be better placed to capture attendance in private preschools, which is prevalent in many low and middle income countries but is not always captured by government data sources.

iso-instagramEven existing household surveys do not adequately capture the diversity of available services. Current approaches to measurement do not consider many characteristics of provision. For example, how strong are the education and learning components in organised early childhood programmes outside of pre-primary education? National and international household surveys should improve their questions to capture the full diversity of organized learning programmes. [Tweet]

Developing monitoring mechanisms of early childhood development outcomes

Target 4.2 focuses on ensuring children begin formal schooling developmentally on track and ‘ready for primary school’. This holistic view marks a shift from a view of child development based exclusively on health-related indicators.

The global indicator is the “proportion of children under 5 years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being”. But deciding how best to measure child development is complex. There is a need to track normative development across cultures and develop measurement approaches accordingly.

The early childhood development measure with the highest country coverage is the UNICEF Early Childhood Development Index (ECDI). Across 56 mostly low and middle income countries over 2010–2015, about 70% of 3-year-olds and 80% of 4-year-olds were developmentally on track according to this definition. While the index consists of four components it is strongly determined by one of them: literacy and numeracy.


Some believe that this measurement approach can be improved because it may be reflecting norms on early education rather than monitoring young children’s cognitive capacity. To understand whether children are reaching their development potential, more research is needed on measures of early childhood development that are valid across a wide range of countries. [Tweet]