Innovation in Early Learning Starts With Political Will and Investment

Noviana Soares (left), is attending preschool at Si-Rui Suco Laubonu, Ermera Municipality, Timor-Leste “I am very happy to come to school because here I can study together with my friends, we also sing and dance together”.22-08-2017.
ttheirPhoto by UNICEF/Bernardino Soares

By Justin W. van Fleet, Ph.D.
President, Theirworld

In 2015, the international community came together and committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)—17 goals for global development to be achieved by 2030. Number four on the list (SDG4) calls for nations to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. By 2030, world leaders pledged to ensure all girls and boys would have access to quality early childhood care and pre-primary education.

In the months and years that followed, leader after leader proclaimed their commitment to these goals and to early education, citing many potential benefits arising from such investments, not least of which are the economic and social benefits. Yet the rhetoric does not match the reality.

Investing just $1 in early childhood care and education can yield a return as high as $17 for the most disadvantaged children. Yet globally, 150 million children are still denied support at this fundamental stage in their learning and development—the key to giving them the best start in life.

So what can we do? There are two crucial ingredients for making early childhood education a reality: political will and investment. First, governments must be sufficiently convinced that investment in early learning is a smart investment. Second, governments—and the international community supporting development—must invest. Unfortunately, sufficient investment is far from being realized.

While the cost of two years of pre-primary education in low- and middle-income countries is estimated to reach $144 billion annually by 2030, countries are investing a fraction of the amount necessary to benefit the youngest members of society. Even more shocking than this has been the international community’s response.

Just two years after committing to the SDGs, despite the rhetoric, a new report produced by Theirworld in collaboration with the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, Leaving the Youngest Behind, reveals Overseas Development Aid to pre-primary education decreased by 27% between 2015 and 2017, from US$94.8 million to US$68.8 million.

The new report, titled Leaving the Youngest Behind, can be found here.

This decrease occurred against a backdrop of a more general increase in aid to education: over this period, total aid to education rose by 11%, indicating that political commitment, as measured by the share of education aid to the early years, is wavering.

Preschool children giggling in the village of Man, in the North East of Côte d’Ivoire… In Côte d’Ivoire, less than 8% of children go to preschool. The graduation rate in Côte d’Ivoire is lower than 70% in primary school and 41% in high school. This is mainly due to the low quality of education, the lack of sufficient textbooks, the excessively high pupil/teacher ratio in primary schools, and the low teacher supervision and teaching methods that do not take into account the specific needs of children. For girls, school-based violence, including sexual violence, lack of latrines and water points, and domestic chores that reduce the amount of time girls spend on their education, have a negative impact on school attendance. © UNICEF/UN0149725/Dejongh

The analysis reveals the shocking reality that 17 of the top 25 donors to the education sector have either given nothing or reduced their previous spending on pre-primary education since the introduction of the SDG targets.

Total international aid amounts to just $0.26 per child per year for early childhood education—woefully inadequate compared to the estimated cost of approximately $400 per child per year in the lowest income countries. The numbers are even more shocking for marginalized children caught up in conflict zones, where total aid reaches a mere $0.17 per child per year. This occurs in many locations where other sources of education finance are severely limited.

In the poorest countries, according to the Education Commission, even after domestic resource mobilization efforts are maximized, many will be left unable to fund half their education budgets, making international aid vitally important. In these countries, grant and concessional financing through funders such as UNICEF, the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, and the Education Cannot Wait fund are extremely important.

Yet these institutions have failed to reach the recommended 10% of their education budgets dedicated to early years. For instance, the World Bank, while the largest financier of pre-primary education, reported a contribution of just 1.3% of its total education budget to pre-primary education—just over $15 million to the OECD in 2017. This is down from 3% two years earlier. Despite leading the scorecard on the proportion of education aid for early childhood education, UNICEF still falls short of the 10% target. The Global Partnership for Education stands at just half the target, or 5% of its grant funding devoted to the early years.

Beyond grant aid, there is a larger problem in lower-middle-income countries where the needs are much greater given the sheer population and size compared to low-income countries. In these countries, less than 1% of the $40 billion available through the multilateral development bank system is allocated to education. Within that allocation, funding to early education is even more scarce.

The International Finance Facility for Education is an important innovation that could unlock more than $10 billion for SDG4 and place early learning front and center.

For this reason, the International Finance Facility for Education is an important innovation that could unlock more than $10 billion for SDG4 and place early learning front and center. The Facility, now being taken forward by the World Bank, regional development banks, donor countries, and United Nations System, could be operational by January 2020. Through its innovative use of guarantees and grant financing, the scale of financing for education in lower- to middle-income countries could multiply by four when directed through the Facility.

The potential of this new funding instrument would be a game-changer for early childhood education. If its founders agree that investing in the youngest children should be a priority and reach the 10% investment target in the early years, another $1 billion could be unlocked for early education in countries around the world, financing millions of places for early learners.

This new facility would also help countries ranging from Pakistan and Kenya to Guatemala and Cote D’Ivoire to unleash the potential of the next generation through strong early learning programs, placing the Sustainable Development Goal in closer reach and reversing the trend where the youngest citizens of the world have been missing out.