Beyond access: exploring equity in early childhood learning and development
Less than 1/3 of 6-year-old children from 38 countries around the world are starting primary school with mastery of the foundations in reading, counting and socio-emotional skills according to a new report by Save the Children.
June 14, 2018 by Lauren Pisani, Save the Children, Amy Jo Dowd, Save the Children and Frannie Noble, Save the Children|
Two preschool girls during class at the Ruben Dario preschool in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
CREDIT: GPE/Carolina Valenzuela

A new report using data from Save the Children’s International Development and Early Learning Assessment (IDELA) finds that on average, 6-year-olds can name 4 to 5 different types of food or animals, identify 3 out of 5 common shapes, recognize basic emotions but not methods for coping with negative feelings like sadness, and draw a copy of a simple shape. However, digging deeper into these group averages, data from 20,000 children across sites within 38 countries display a wide range of early learning and development skills (figure 1).

Figure 1. Distribution of Total IDELA scores by age (n=20,361)

Figure 1. Distribution of Total IDELA scores by age (n=20,361)

Less than one-third of 6-year-old children from 38 sites around the world are transitioning into primary school with mastery of foundational early literacy, numeracy and social-emotional skills. Although countries or programs may have different standards for what children entering primary school should know or be able to do, IDELA takes into account global curriculum and research for skills needed upon school entry and aims to capture this variation.

Using IDELA data from nearly 3,500 6-year-olds, we find that the majority of children display ‘emerging’ skills (26 – 75% correct), a smaller proportion show ‘mastery’ of foundational early learning skills (76% correct or more), and others struggle with the assessment content (0-25% correct) (figure 2).

These results suggest that the majority of children have begun to develop the skills they need to make a smooth transition into primary school, but will likely have difficulty in one or more subject area if they are not properly supported during Grade 1. This begs the question of whether primary school teachers are ready to support the range of skill levels that children bring with them into their new classroom environments.

Figure 2. Proportion of 6-year-olds by domain and performance level (n=3,491)

Figure 2. Proportion of 6-year-olds by domain and performance level (n=3,491)

What factors promote strong early learning skills for young children?

Children’s family background and home learning environments greatly influence their learning and development. New analyses demonstrate that supportive home learning environments, which include toys and books for young children, as well as a diversity of learning and play activities and freedom from harsh discipline, are the most conducive to optimal learning and development (figure 3).

It is clear that parenting practices and home environments play critical roles in young children’s development, and efforts to improve early learning, even those focused on classroom-based programs, should not neglect the importance of home environments.

Figure 3. Change in total IDELA score by home learning materials (HLE), socio-economic status, home learning activities (HLA), and harsh discipline (significant results only)

Figure 3. Change in total IDELA score by home learning materials (HLE), socio-economic status, home learning activities (HLA), and harsh discipline (significant results only)

Most datasets in this study display no significant differences between the learning and development skills of young boys and girls, but in places where gender differences do exist, they tend to be in favor of girls (figure 4). Girls were more likely to outperform boys in literacy, social-emotional skills and motor development as well as on the total IDELA score.

Figure 4. Number of data sets displaying gender differences by skill area

Figure 4. Number of data sets displaying gender differences by skill area

While little has been published on skill differences by gender for young children around the world, these results reflect similar gender dynamics found in international research with older children. This global evidence also shows that despite strong performance on learning assessments while in school, girls from poor families in low-income countries are substantially less likely to complete primary school compared to their peers who are wealthier and male.

There is a great need for further research on trends in educational gender differences related to both access and learning as children progress through schooling.

What does this mean for policy makers, funders, and program implementers?

Children aged 3 – 5 years are in a critical period of brain development, but also a vulnerable stage which often lacks learning-focused services. This report concludes that we cannot define success in progress toward SDG 4.2 by measuring access only; quality must be front and center.

It is critical that education systems invest more in the early years, because failing to invest sustainably and equitably in quality early learning opportunities for every child endangers their right to fulfill developmental and educational potential.

In addition, education systems need to be responsive to children’s diverse needs and skill levels and should approach pre-primary program expansion with an equity lens. Progressive investments will recognize that children don’t develop in a vacuum, and will engage families and communities in their learning journeys. To reach all children with the support they need, education systems must connect with children’s support systems inside and outside of school.

For more information about IDELA and these findings please visit

*Save the Children would like to thank the external partners who contributed to this report: Cambridge Education, EQUIP-Tanzania, FSG India, International Rescue Committee, New York University, Open Society Foundations, Queen Rania Foundation for Education, Rising Academy Network and Results for Development, as well as our Save the Children colleagues in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Jordan, Malawi, Mali, Mexico, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Niger, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Philippines, Rwanda, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Uganda, United States, Vietnam and Zambia.

Post a commentor

Latest blogs

View all
Participants at an information workshop on the Guinea-Bissau education sector plan. Credit: UNICEF
To strengthen the knowledge of all partners involved in the sector around the education plan, GPE along with UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, collaborated to develop an innovative dissemination...
ECOSOC Youth Forum
At the ECOSOC Youth Forum in April, young people from around the world voiced their hopes, aspirations and concerns about their future. All of them view education clearly as core to their needs to...
The members of the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council pose after their meeting in Paris on May 8 and 9.
Reflections after the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council meeting in early May.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.