Based on my experience as a teacher in the sector, I can testify to the transformative power of quality early childhood education (ECE) for children. ECE goes beyond learning letters of the alphabet or numbers. Playing games and enjoying nature outdoors are equally important for children, nurturing creativity and building a solid foundation for their holistic development. Moreover, ECE is a cornerstone for developing children’s cognitive, social-emotional, and psychomotor skills, setting them up for success in school and the wider society.
Education is a human right and a public good, and according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every child has the right to quality education. At the World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) held in 2022 , stakeholders reaffirmed that access to quality and inclusive ECE enables the overall well-being and development of an individual, promotes lifelong learning, gender equality, social equity and sustainable development, giving all children the foundation they require to achieve their full potential.
Yet, despite the paramount importance of ECE, the sector remains grossly underfunded compared to other levels of education, especially in low and middle-income countries, therefore impeding the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) target 4.2 .
To achieve this target, it is recommended to allocate 10% of the national education budget and 1% of the GDP to ECE; however, many countries across the globe allocate significantly less than those benchmarks.
On average, most countries allocate only about 6.6% of the educational budget and 0.43% of their GDP to ECE. Furthermore, in regions like West and Central Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa and the Middle East, governments allocate less than 3% of their education budget to ECE. Similarly, OECD countries spend on average just over 0.8% of GDP on ECE, with notable exceptions spending 0.5%: Colombia, Costa Rica, Ireland, Portugal, Türkiye and USA.
Underfunding threatens equitable access
Governments’ inadequate investment in ECE has led to limited access and increased participation of private actors in the sector. In fact, of 183 countries with available data, about 120 (66%) are yet to guarantee the legal provision of free and compulsory ECE in their national framework. As a result, only 60% of children aged 3-6 have the opportunity to engage in ECE programs, with even lower participation rates in regions grappling with lower income levels.
Compounding this issue is the growing presence of private actors in the ECE sector. ECE is the sector with the highest private actor participation, and this private actor involvement has seen a sharp increase from 28% in 2000 to 38% in 2020. This surge in private actor involvement poses a great threat to ensuring equitable access to ECE. For instance, children from the poorest families in Sub-Saharan Africa have an attendance rate of below 10% in early childhood education. This is because their families cannot afford the fees charged by these private actors to get them enrolled in private centers, which exacerbates inequalities and hinders children from achieving their potential for a better future.
The impact on ECE personnel
The working conditions of ECE personnel are also affected by the increased participation of private actors in the sector.
Achieving SDG 4.2 requires prioritizing the ECE sector, which involves strengthening access to quality ECE for all children but also investing in a well-trained and supported ECE workforce. Well trained and qualified ECE personnel positively impact the quality of ECE which in turn, positively influences children’s cognitive and social outcomes. Yet, structural underfunding means that the sector remains plagued with persistent challenges affecting ECE personnel: poor working conditions, low salaries, and little recognition of the profession. All these factors contribute to high teacher turnover rates which often exceed 40%, teacher attrition and shortages. In addition, chronic underfunding and related trends disproportionately impact women who account for 94% of the ECE workforce globally.
Time for action
To address these pressing challenges, governments must fulfill their obligations and commit at least 10% of the national public education budget and 1% of the GDP to ensure quality and accessible ECE. They should also allocate more funds to the economically vulnerable and marginalized children. Additionally, in line with the ILO Policy Guidelines on the Promotion of Decent Work for Early Childhood Education Personnel, international organizations should advocate for governments to increase the status of ECE personnel, improve their working conditions, prevent shortages and ensure their qualifications, status and pay are on par with teachers of other levels of education, as well as develop and improve regulatory mechanisms. In order to address chronic underfunding in the sector, progressive taxation should be developed as a means for governments to raise funds to finance ECE. ActionAid’s Transforming Education Financing Toolkit offers valuable insights to achieve this. Finally, governments and employers should actively engage in meaningful policy and social dialogue with unions representing ECE personnel. Frameworks for evaluation and regular reports on the use of resources allocated to ECE should be available, to ensure transparency and accountability to unions and citizens.
As a passionate teacher who has seen the transformative power of ECE, I believe that promoting these strategies through global policy frameworks can pave the way for quality and inclusive ECE for all children, setting the stage for their future success and fostering a more equitable society.
By 2030 ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.