Pre-primary education spending is a 'blind spot' for aid

A girl smiles at the camera in the Guardabarranco School in Acoyapa, Nicaragua. Photo by: Carolina Valenzuela / GPE / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Just 1 percent of early childhood development funding is spent on education, according to a report published Wednesday. The report calls on donors to dedicate at least 10 percent of their education budgets to schooling for children aged under 5.

While aid for early childhood development programs to improve health, nutrition, and education for pre-primary children has increased significantly in recent years — from $1.3 billion in 2002 to $6.8 billion in 2016 — just 1 percent of that money is spent on preschool education programs, according to the report from children’s charity Theirworld.

“This is a major blind spot in development spending and efforts to tackle inequality,” Theirworld Campaigns and Communications Director Ben Hewitt said. “Most often, children missing out on preschool are the poorest and most marginalized. It is an unfair disadvantage from the start.”

Neuroscienctists say a child’s brain experiences its fastest growth and is most “malleable” between the prenatal period and age 3, meaning that proper cognitive and non-cognitive stimulation needs to happen early.  

The World Bank described early childhood development as “the smartest investment a country can make in its future” in its recent World Development Report on education.

For example, a study in Mozambique showed that children enrolled in preschool were 24 percent more likely to continue on to primary school. They also showed improved understanding and behavior compared to their peers. Other studies have shown that investing in early education can boost household incomes by allowing parents to return to work.

However, the majority of ECD donors prefer to put money into nutrition and health, rather than education. For example, the Netherlands and the United States — the second and third largest donors to ECD, respectively — gave nothing to pre-primary education last year, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Similarly, the United Kingdom, the fourth largest ECD supporter, allocated less than 1 percent of ECD funding to education.

With the majority of funding for pre-primary education coming from just three donors — Canada, South Korea, and the World Bank — campaigners say the sector is vulnerable to shifting priorities.  

Professor Pauline Rose from the University of Cambridge, who authored the report, called on donors to invest more in early education, which she said “lays the foundation for opportunity and success in adulthood.”

“Donors need to wake up to the fact that investment in the early years requires access to good quality pre-primary education, as well as health and nutrition. It is time to take a good look at the numbers and commit to urgent action. If they don't, millions of children will fail to reach their full potential,” Rose said.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.