The urgent need for investment in pre-primary education

By Pauline Rose and Ben Hewitt

3A child’s most important steps happen before they set foot in a primary school. Early childhood, from birth to age five, is the most critical developmental stage in a person’s life. By their fifth birthday, a child’s brain will already be 90% developed. If children are going to reach their full physical, social, and cognitive potential in school and in life, they must be provided with quality nurturing care in their very years. Early childhood interventions should support four key developmental domains — physical, cognitive, linguistic and socio-emotional development. However, while progress is being made in some areas, children’s early education is too often neglected, putting millions of children at a disadvantage even before they enter school.

1New research, carried out by the University of Cambridge’s Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre on behalf of the charity, Theirworld, and launched today in the report Bright and Early: How financing pre-primary education gives every child a fair start in lifehighlights the invisible crisis facing pre-primary education. The research shows that 85% of children in low income countries still do not have access to pre-primary. This lack of equitable access to pre-primary education means more than 200 million children under the age of five in developing countries are estimated to be at risk of failing to reach their full potential.

Previous analysis by the GEM Report supports the claim that investment in early childhood can help level the playing field by tackling the intertwined challenges of poor quality education and unequal opportunity faced by the poorest and most marginalises children in national education systems. Investing in quality early childhood education can improve access to and learning in primary school and reduce achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged children.  Evidence cited in the report identifies that, in Mozambique, children in rural areas who enrolled in pre-school were 24% more likely to go on to attend primary school — and show improved understanding and behaviour — compared to children who had not, with comparable evidence in other countries.

Despite these well-known benefits, new analysis in the ‘Bright and Early’ report shows that pre-primary education is massively underfunded. Governments in low-income countries spend only $8 a year per child on pre-primary education – a mere 2.5 cents a day. Donor support of early childhood education is even bleaker, with the donors spending less than ½ a cent at day per child in low income countries. Even the largest donor to pre-primary education, the World Bank, only gives 2.7% of its total education budget to this sub-sector. This is despite the World Bank being an important advocate for early childhood development. Current spending on pre-primary education by governments and donors combined represents just 11% of resources needed each year between now and 2030 by low income countries to meet the pre-primary education target of universal access (see GEM Report Policy Paper on decrease in aid to education).

With equity underpinning all SDG targets, strategies for improving development outcomes for young children will need to include a commitment to invest in the earlier years of a child’s life. Yet, according to the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report, only 40 countries have a policy of free compulsory pre-primary education, meaning three-quarters of the governments who committed in 2015 to Target 4.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to “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” do not have a policy in place to support this target.

2Progressive universalism” needs to be at the heart of education systems. This means that policies should prioritise the most disadvantaged children, especially at earlier levels of education, before inequalities become entrenched. Governments and donors should prioritise the expansion of quality pre-primary education, given clear evidence of its positive effects on the cognitive development, learning and outcomes of disadvantaged children in school and later in life.

Yet, as the ‘Bright and Early’ report shows investment by many governments and donors is neglecting investment in pre-primary education in favour of higher levels of education. While more money is needed overall for the education sector as whole, from both domestic and aid sources, current levels of spending illustrate that government and donor spending on education in many of the poorest countries is skewed towards the richest and most educated students. Donor governments give 26 times more to higher education scholarships than pre-primary education, even though these scholarships overwhelmingly benefit wealthier students.  This is to the detriment of the most disadvantaged. Firstly, they are the least likely to progress to higher levels of education. And, secondly, insufficient public subsidisation of pre-primary education puts it out of reach of the poorest families who are unable to afford the costs entailed.

By neglecting to invest in pre-primary education, governments and donors are not just hurting children, they are inhibiting the economic growth of entire nations. Each $1 dollar invested in early childhood care and education is estimated to lead to a return as high as $17 for the most disadvantaged children.

It is time to tackle the invisible crisis of pre-primary education through immediate and sustained investment in pre-primary. Governments and donors alike need to both increase and reorient their spending to support pre-primary education and allocate at least 10% of their education budget to this sector. Without it millions of children be will fail to reach their full potential and education will perpetuate existing inequities in education and beyond.

Blog Authors:

Pauline Rose, Professor of International Education at the University of Cambridge, and Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre
Ben Hewitt, Director of Campaigns and Communications, Theirworld. For more information about Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign go to



  1. You statement “Donor governments give 26 times more to higher education scholarships than pre-primary education, even though these scholarships overwhelmingly benefit wealthier students.” is so true and its going to take a sure miracle for government to really make this an issue worth contributing too versus the little they give to higher education.

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