But despite this, preschool education is grossly unaccessed and underprovided in low- and lower-middle-income countries.
According to the World Bank, only 20% and 58% of children are enrolled in low- and lower-middle-income countries respectively, as opposed to 100% enrollment for primary school–a gap of 45 percentage points between preschool and primary for both country groups when taken together. (Our own calculations based on downloaded EdStats data.)
Spending on preschool education is also much lower: low-income country governments spend only 7% as much as on primary education even though in principle preschool education lasts as much as 50% (3 years on average) as long as primary education (6 years on average). (Again, authors’ calculations based on downloaded EdStats data.)
Parents and caregivers then take up the burden: about 30% of preschool provision in low-income countries is private as opposed to only about 8% in primary (see Global Education Monitoring Report 2021/22, p. 136 and onwards). These facts are in complete contradiction with the economic and moral imperatives noted above.
Why then does this contradictory state of affairs exist? What can be done about it? First, when considering the work of Heckman and others, it could be said policy makers often believe that the returns of preschool education are only realized in the long-term and are inherently social rather than fiscal—the immediate concern of ministries of finance.
Second, some would argue that primary education is already in a learning crisis and as such, requiring immediate attention, leaving worrying about preschool to a later date. Aware of these issues, fiscal authorities are reluctant to make preschool education obligatory and free or, at any rate, to fund it more.
But this strikes us as an unnecessary fear for 2 reasons.
First, because preschool can increase primary school efficiency in the short-term, and secondly, there are ways to address the issues of quality and affordability.
If preschool provision is of reasonable quality and conceived of as integral to the foundation years improvements called for at the UN Transforming Education Summit in 2022, efficiency is reached through reductions in grade repetition, dropout prevention and increased completion rates.
We know that despite having greatly expanded enrollment compared to preschool, primary schools in many low- and lower-middle-income countries have completion rates stuck at a very low level due to grade repetition and school drop-out, tied in part to children beginning school so unprepared, having faced education provision failures in the foundation years.