A 600-hour preschool entitlement: Making rights concrete

With preschool education grossly underprovided in lower-income countries, RTI International’s “Preschool Entitlement” intends to accelerate its expansion by helping policymakers plan and finance preschool access in low-income contexts.

June 01, 2023 by Luis Crouch, RTI International, and Jan van Ravens
6 minutes read
Students play with blocks and other materials Aranaputa nursery school, Region 9, Guyana. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Students play with blocks and other materials Aranaputa nursery school, Region 9, Guyana.
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

The Preschool Entitlement is a new policy instrument designed for countries and international development organizations that want to push for preschool education as fast as possible while maintaining quality and countries’ fiscal stances, so it is about expansion while filling in quality gaps.

The instrument is also described in a paper we published in January.

Why low- and lower-middle-income countries need this instrument

Prestigious economists (such as Nobel prize winner James Heckman) have shown that preschool education has a high rate of return for society–higher than other forms of education and investment.

Providing pre-primary education is a clear requirement that countries and development agencies have accepted as preschool is a key part of the agreed upon United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Access to and quality of preschool education are also 2 key indicators for development agencies such as GPE.

Without public provision of preschool education, well-off professionals and those with a decent income use private means to send their children to preschool.

Economists, societies at large and private citizens all clearly make the judgment from economic and moral standpoints that preschool education is a good thing for children and families.

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.

We thus hasten to make clear that what we propose is not a mere downward expansion of a primary education system, especially one that is inefficient and of low quality, as that would only worsen the problem and not be in the public interest.

A policy instrument to expand preschool education

Expanding preschool education in a stepwise manner that is optional in terms of value-for-money at every stage can be achieved in the following ways:

  • Without creating much new bureaucracy, if any at all.
  • Respecting the fact that the sector already has a good deal of non-profit, non-state provision by not disrupting it—a great appeal to parents.
  • Making management and governance not too complex so that processes can be decentralized as needed depending on country capacity.
  • Adopting an easy-to-govern and -manage manner thanks to very simple input and process controls.
  • With quality controls and a basic minimum floor below which no provider would be allowed to go under if they qualify for the subsidy.
  • In a targeted way so as to provide access to preschool sequentially, beginning with those who cannot afford it.

The Preschool Entitlement policy instrument, in its design, allows countries to achieve the above by supporting them to determine a fundamental, reasonable level of quality and intensity for preschool provision that can entitle any provider (state or non-state) meeting those levels to receive a per child subsidy.

The entitlement would amount to 600 hours per year (3 hours per day, 5 days per week, 40 weeks per year, for two or possibly three years prior to Grade 1)--our paper indicates this is what is needed to prepare children for Grade 1.

The research cited in the paper also shows that this provision is enough to ensure a successful transition to Grade 1 if it is of good quality.

It is expected that such a base level of entitlement would spark initiatives at the local level to expand a preschool program through fees, philanthropy or local taxes to have additional hours of daycare for families who need it.

The subsidy for the 600 hours can be whole or partial depending on poverty levels. The reasonable level of quality at a reasonable cost can be determined in each country by studying the levels of quality and cost incurred by current providers, both state and non-state, at the “sweet spot” of quality and cost--measured objectively and impartially by third parties.

Level of quality can be determined according to an empirical checklist for quality assurance, registration and/or ongoing accreditation (derived both from the literature and from existing best practices within the country), that can be used to both study the situation initially and then determine the requirements for subsidization.

This kind of approach would be an integral part of the policy instrument and is what would help guarantee expansion with quality.

The government can then hold out this subsidy to new or existing providers who wish to undertake provision with a quality guarantee in exchange for meeting the quality requirements. Other providers who might meet a lower bar for quality would be allowed to operate, of course, but would not receive the subsidy.

A key element of the approach is that the dosage or intensity of the provision can also be targeted by poverty level or district. For example, both additional hours (per day) and days (per year) could be guaranteed in poorer areas.

Targeted provision intensity can expand a preschool provision system at an affordable pace without putting too much pressure on fiscal authorities because those who can afford it continue to pay at least for the time being, and perhaps for good.

The approach also allows expansion to be controlled by how much can be afforded at any given time, but the expansion would be more or less automatically guaranteed to always be optimal in terms of value for money and social inclusion.

In sum, we propose a policy instrument that can fulfill the dream of expanding preschool education so as to improve children’s lives and improve performance on the foundational grades of primary schools while still maintaining quality and without over-burdening the tax system.

We hope that countries could explore the tool through policy dialogue with development agencies and also in internal policy discussions and action research.

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