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Three priorities for countries to achieve their early childhood education benchmarks

Globally, more and more children aged 5 are in organized learning. Countries have managed an improvement in attendance rates of 0.6 percentage points on average per year, increasing from 65% in 2002 to 75% in 2020. Over seven out of ten countries have set SDG 4 benchmarks for the progress they think they can make by 2025 and 2030: the values set for all benchmark indicators may be viewed in the Global Education Observatory (GEO). If they achieve their national targets, participation rates in early childhood education will reach 95% by 2030 globally.

This is considerably faster than one might expect based on past trends. If they managed to improve at the rate of the historically fastest-improving quarter of countries, they would reach only 83%. Can countries reach their ambitious early childhood education targets? Our new report, launched to mark the International Day of Education, looked at that question.

Under the national SDG 4 benchmarking process, each country defines its own targets, taking its specific context, starting point and pace of progress into account. This is an important departure from assuming each country can achieve the same target, which was unrealistic and unfair for many countries. Our new report today evaluates the progress countries are making towards their own benchmarks.

Globally, we found that, among countries that have set benchmarks, barely one in three is on track to achieve them. High-income countries are more likely to have achieved fast progress towards their 2025 benchmark and/or to have achieved a rate of at least 95%. But there are also 14 low- and lower-middle-income countries that are on track to achieve their benchmarks: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Bhutan, Cambodia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, India, Kyrgyzstan, Republic of Moldova, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Vanuatu and Viet Nam.

These findings give room for thought for countries as they set their agendas on this issue. Clearly, countries need to set the right balance between a target that is too ambitious and so unattainable, and one that is feasible, and provides motivation for governments to achieve it. Ambitious targets may be politically advantageous because they act as a demonstration of will, but they carry a larger reputational risk in the long run, and also weaken the extent to which the benchmarks can be used as a reliable accountability mechanism.

Countries need to legislate for free and compulsory education. In 2020, 91 out of 188 countries guaranteed zero years of free and compulsory pre-primary education in their legislation. While only few have compulsory education laws at present, the number is increasing over time, and particularly since 2010. There is huge variance between regions and income groups, of course. Almost 10% of upper middle countries, and 5% of high income countries’ laws call for 3 years of compulsory education. In low-income countries meanwhile, less than 5% call for 1 year to be compulsory.

Many countries, notably in Africa and Asia, lack compulsory laws but have benchmarks. Yet, where compulsory laws are in place, countries have higher levels of participation and set higher benchmarks. Amongst lower-middle income countries, for instance, where compulsory pre-primary education laws are in place, benchmarks average around 97%, in comparison to 84% for countries with no such laws.

Given the large share in pre-primary education, governments must regulate private providers to ensure quality and equity. Yet, as the GEM Report PEER country profiles on non-state actors show, 97% of countries regulate approval, licensing and establishment of private pre-primary education providers, while only 26% support vulnerable populations’ tuition fee payments and just 15% prohibit non-state providers from operating for profit. In countries where tuition fees for specific population groups are subsidized, however, the percentage of children who participate in organized learning one year before entry to primary school is higher by 13 percentage points, whereas countries with fee-setting regulations have a 7 percentage-point higher participation.

Finally, increasing spending on public pre-primary education increases enrollment in public institutions. Among the 80 countries with data in 2018–20, 0.43% of GDP was spent on pre-primary education. Four countries spent above 1% of GDP: Belarus, Ecuador, the Republic of Moldova and Sweden. Doubling spending from 0.25 to 0.50 of GDP, however, triples participation rates from 20% to 60% on average, and is a clear win for improving progress on this issue.

The national SDG 4 benchmarking process was conceived as a tool to strengthen accountability. But it should not only be seen as that. Rather, they are meant to stimulate discussion about policies that can help countries fulfil their national education aspirations through peer dialogue. This report is the first in an annual series that will provide the latest information on national SDG 4 benchmark values and on progress towards them, using the latest data.


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