Act now! Investing in the foundations of learning for all children
A new report by UNICEF highlights that at least 175 million of the pre-primary school-age children in the world are not enrolled in preschool. How can we address the challenges that prevent children from having access to early education?
April 16, 2019 by Jo Bourne, Global Partnership for Education and Ted Chaiban, UNICEF
5 minutes read
A child holds up plastic bananas during class at a community pre-school in Kang Meas District, Cambodia, 2015. © UNICEF/UN0144155/Pirozzi
A child holds up plastic bananas during class at a community pre-school in Kang Meas District, Cambodia, 2015.
© UNICEF/UN0144155/Pirozzi

Children between the ages of three and six might seem like they are only just beginning life’s journey. But in fact, more than 85% of their brain development is already in place. Each and every day is critical to their development. They are learning new ideas - colors and shapes, letters and numbers - as their brains and bodies grow.

These early days represent a critical window of opportunity to set the foundations for lifelong success, at school and in life.

What we do now will have a life-changing effect on the children of tomorrow. It compels us to act – and to act differently.

We know that quality pre-primary education is one of the most effective investments for success in school and later in life. Yet, despite the proven benefits of pre-primary education, millions of children are missing out on this precious opportunity. The new report ‘A World Ready to Learn: Prioritizing Quality Early Childhood Education’ by UNICEF highlights that half of the pre-primary school-age children in the world –at least 175 million – are not enrolled in any pre-primary program.

So, how do we unlock the life-changing benefits of early childhood education?

  • We raise the profile of pre-primary education in the decision-making process of governments
  • We progressively grow access
  • We simultaneously improve quality
  • We invest - early, equitably and smartly
  • And we act now.

There is no doubt that the path to universal pre-primary education is rife with resource constraints and competing priorities. But analyses of progress in countries like Nepal, Mongolia and Ethiopia show that providing universal access to pre-primary education is a reachable target. And it requires practical and bold approaches that address country realities.

The Sustainable Development Goals issued a bold challenge to the global community to provide all children with quality pre-primary education by 2030. Millions of children are ready for pre-primary education today. It is crucial to embark on the path towards realizing this vital opportunity now and provide all children the opportunities they deserve.

Raise the profile

As countries work towards building systems that can deliver quality pre-primary education, stakeholders – such as Ministries of Education and Finance – are faced with tough challenges. When deciding where to direct their investment and attention within education, pre-primary often loses out. To give each child a better chance at success, we must work together to raise the profile of pre-primary education within education sector plans and policies.

We must do this urgently and accelerate efforts to address access and learning gaps by making at least one year of pre-primary education a routine part of education systems.

Grow access

Currently, access to early childhood education is highly unequal in almost every country, with attendance rates for children in the richest quintile in low income countries 8 times higher than those of the poor. When a country’s goal is to scale up the pre-primary education system quickly, there is a strong temptation to first provide services to the children easiest to reach, such as those typically living in urban areas or from wealthier households.

This ‘business as usual’ approach will not fulfill the promise of universal pre-primary education - it will worsen existing gaps between the disadvantaged and their peers. Equity and expansion must therefore go hand in hand.

Governments must put in place policies that maintain a universal commitment and prioritize the poorest and hardest-to-reach children at the start of the road to universality, not at the end. In countries not on track to achieve the universal target, they must prioritize the implementation of a single year of free pre-primary education, with an aim to expand this to more years as the system’s capacity grows.

Improve quality

Attending a pre-primary program is of limited value to a child unless that program is of a sufficiently high standard. Many factors contribute to quality pre-primary education: a developmentally appropriate curriculum, engaged families and communities, an efficient quality assurance system, equitable planning and resource management, and most importantly a competent and motivated workforce.

Globally, the supply of pre-primary teachers will need to double by 2030 to meet the SDG target of universal coverage with an ideal PTR of 20 to 1. More urgently, low-income countries will need eight times as many pre-primary teachers as they currently have.

We will need new solutions and interim plans to fill these gaps. We must invest in quality as the system grows – not after – striking a balance between expanding access and maintaining quality so that pre-primary education results in real benefits for all children. 

Strengthening the governance and implementation capacity of the pre-primary system across all levels of government is critical to ensure the learning outcomes of children.  

Invest early, equitably and smartly

If countries want to ensure universal access to pre-primary, it is imperative for governments and donors to dedicate and increase financing. The UNICEF report recommends that governments should aim to allocate at least 10% of education budgets to pre-primary education.

And donors should lead by example by devoting at least 10% of their education aid to pre-primary education, catalyzing and complementing public resources.

We must agree on a common vision for early childhood education among governments, donors and partners that complements funding and technical assistance available where and when it is most needed.


Pre-school children in Sibiti, South Of Congo, 2019. © UNICEF/UN0282817/Frank Dejongh
Pre-school children in Sibiti, South Of Congo, 2019.
© UNICEF/UN0282817/Frank Dejongh

Act now

To achieve universal pre-primary education by 2030 - to give every child a fair chance in life - we must act now. The need is urgent — and “business as usual” is not good enough. At our current pace, tens of millions of children will still be denied the early education they need and deserve. 

We must not let them down.

All data in this blog comes from UNICEF's new global report on early childhood education, A World Ready to Learn: Prioritizing Quality Early Childhood Education.

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