By Luis Crouch, RTI International, and Jan van Ravens, independent policy advisor
Worldwide, only three out of five children had access to pre-primary education in 2020. In low-income countries, only one out of five was enrolled. The adoption of SDG target 4.2 does not seem to have accelerated the expansion of pre-primary education. In fact, the year 2015 seems to mark the beginning of a slowdown.
Pre-primary education gross enrolment ratio by country income group, 1970–2020
Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics Data
Low-income countries, in particular, suffer from the weak foundations syndrome: 2015 marks the end of a few years of moderate expansion of public pre-primary education as well as the beginning of an increase of the primary gross enrolment ratio (GER) to levels above 100%. By combining multiple sources, both at national and local level, Crouch and colleagues found that many families in these countries enrol their children early (and unprepared) in primary education, especially in places where no free pre-primary education is available but primary education is free. This causes high levels of repetition in early grades.
The adjusted net enrolment rate (ANER), which indicates the number of children who are enrolled in any form of education one year before the official primary entry age, began to increase quite sharply in 2018, after some years of decline. This could be perceived as a result of SDG target 4.2, which calls for providing all children with at least one year of preschool. However, the pre-primary GER, both in public and in private institutions, remained flat in these years. This suggests that the ambition to provide one year of pre-primary education to all children may have been at the cost of enrolment in the earlier grades of pre-primary education. Moreover, the ANER may include an important number of children enrolled early in primary school, which is not a form of preschool at all.
Public and private preschool education appear to be communicating vessels. Public enrolment began to expand in 2011 while private enrolment began to decrease a year later. When the expansion of public pre-primary education came to an end in 2015, so did the decrease of enrolment in private preschools. It seems that new public preschools were attended to a large extent by children who would otherwise have been enrolled in private preschools.
Primary and pre-primary gross enrolment in low-income countries, 1970–2020
Source: Calculated by the authors using UNESCO Institute for Statistics and World Bank data.
Other elements of the weak foundations syndrome are low primary completion rates and poor learning achievement. Although a panacea does not exist, there is one affordable policy option. A substantial body of evidence supports the claim that making pre-primary education available to all children will not only take away the temptation for parents to enrol their children early (and inappropriately from a developmental point of view) in primary school but will also prepare them better for it, resulting in lower dropout and repetition and higher completion rates. But exactly how can we promote the expansion of pre-primary education?
In our publication, The Preschool Entitlement, we argued that pre-primary education has two main functions: child development and childcare. In all cases, preschool enables children to develop to their full potential and be well-prepared for primary school. And in many cases, pre-primary education has the additional function of relieving parents from caring for their children during their working day. For just the child development function, a program of 2 or 2.5 hours per day can be sufficient, provided that a number of quality criteria are met. With a slightly more generous 3 hours per day, and with a schedule of 5 days per week and 40 weeks per year, we arrived at the proposition of a universal entitlement to 600 hours of quality preschool education per year.
The cost of providing two years of this 600-hour program to every child for free amounts to 0.14% of GDP in upper-middle-income, 0.27% in lower-middle-income, and 0.38% in low-income countries. Government spending in upper- and lower-middle-income countries was higher than these estimates, at 0.37% of GDP (2018-2020), as reported in the SDG 4 Scorecard by the Global Education Monitoring Report and UNESCO Institute for Statistics teams. But spending in low-income was only 0.07% of GDP, far less than the cost estimate of 0.38%.
We compared our estimates with countries’ tax-to-GDP ratio. Again it appears that middle-income countries should be able to finance this from domestic resources, while low-income countries raise far less tax than middle-income countries despite the higher cost estimates as a share of GDP. But expressed in dollars, costs are significantly lower in low-income countries, making the Preschool Entitlement is an attractive option for donors who wish to address the weak foundations syndrome in a cost-effective manner. Moreover, governments may cover the estimated costs partly – if not largely – from the efficiency gains in primary education that are likely to result from investing in pre-primary.
But what about the childcare function? A program of three hours per day is likely to be insufficient for most parents to allow them to do their daily work. Yet full-day programs, which include meals and napping facilities, are four times more expensive than the 600-hour child development program. We think that the solution lies in unlocking the investment potential of families and communities: if the service allows parents to work, their income will improve more or less in tandem with their need for childcare.
Families are already demonstrating their willingness to invest in the education and care of young children by their tendency to pay for private childcare. But having to pay is regressive from an equity point of view. Such childcare is also often offered by unregistered preschools, of highly variable quality. Communities are increasingly empowered to invest in local services as a result of decentralization, for instance in Kenya, Peru, Timor-Leste and much of Central and Eastern Europe, which often allows them to retain locally collected taxes and entitles them to localized budgets that they are free to spend. Yet, by guaranteeing and funding a quality program of three hours per day, governments can spark local initiatives in which families and communities, possibly supported by private and faith-based actors, expand the three-hour program with additional hours of daycare.
This requires that the program be locally adaptable. It must be possible to provide it not only in the more common education settings, but also in community centres, near village markets, on the premises of companies, and in mobile facilities. Such a flexible approach to preschool provision makes accreditation imperative. During an initial period of leniency, governments can assist new providers in bringing their programs up to standards and training teachers. But eventually programs can only be funded on the condition that accreditation standards are met.
As a way to make sure that such standards are affordable, yet can guarantee high quality, we would suggest that the standards be determined empirically and locally, by studying providers (public or private, NGO, community- or faith-based) who already offer high value for money at a reasonable price for the non-wealthy. This can be done through simple economic studies and focus groups and can be informed by the sorts of evidence the paper relies on. We hope that our publication on the Preschool Entitlement will contribute the debate on realistic strategies to universalize preschool.