Aid to pre-primary education: the gap between rhetoric and reality

By Professor Pauline Rose, Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

leaving youngest behindMany donors increasingly voice their recognition of the importance of pre-primary education in their education policy, but few are matching their public statements of support with tangible investment. In the last two years, aid to pre-primary education has decreased by 27%, at a time when overall aid to education increased. This paints a stark contrast between donor rhetoric and reality.

A new report, “Leaving the youngest behind”, produced by the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge and global children’s charity Theirworld, has tracked progress in aid spending for pre-primary education over the past two years. It reveals that 16 of the top 25 donors to the education sector have either given nothing or have reduced their previous spending on pre-primary education since the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  SDG target 4.2 calls for all girls and boys to have access to quality pre-primary education by 2030. However, aid spending on pre-primary education is now even smaller than when the SDGs were adopted in 2015. Aid to pre-primary education is a tiny, and declining, priority of overall aid spending, accounting for just 0.5 per cent in total in 2017 – down from 0.8 per cent in 2015.

­Along with adequate nutrition, good health care, protection and play, good-quality, equitable and inclusive early education is fundamental for a child’s full development. Yet, despite the known benefits, aid to pre-primary education is pitifully small: on average, each pre-primary school-aged child in aid recipient countries only received US$0.26 in aid to support early learning in 2017, although there are wide variations between countries. This is so small that it would not even buy the frothy milk on a donor’s daily cappuccino. The situation is even more stark for a pre-primary school-aged child residing in a conflict-affected country, who received on average just US$0.17 in aid.

leaving youngest behind

No single donor is meeting the recommended 10% of education- a Theirworld minimum target, backed by Unicef in 2018 – to this sector. Some donors such as UNICEF and New Zealand have increased their spending getting closer to this target, however, some of the biggest education donors are decreasing their spending, such as Germany and France. Others, including the US, do not report any spending on pre-primary education at all. The World Bank, which has long been a champion and leading donor to pre-primary education – and remains the largest donor in terms of volume – has decreased its spending  on pre-primary education by 1.7% in just two years.

Pre-primary education is the most effective way of promoting equity in education and beyond. It has particular benefits for children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, including children growing up in vulnerable situations and children with disabilities.  However, not only are donors failing to invest in pre-primary, their aid spending is actually fuelling inequity.  In the same period that donor spending has declined overall for pre-primary education, aid funding scholarships for higher education among young people who have completed secondary school has increased. Donor spending on scholarships is now 42 times higher than donor spending on pre-primary education.

A lack of donor support to pre-primary education means millions of the world’s youngest children, in particular girls, children with disabilities and children living in vulnerable situations, are being left behind. An urgent prioritisation of aid spending on pre-primary education is needed to incentivise governments to make serious investments in early learning and deliver the promise of SDG 4 and the sustainable development agenda, where no one is left behind.


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