Early childhood education and care
The inclusion of early childhood development in SDG 4, as Target 4.2, recognises the tremendous potential of early childhood to set the foundation for lifelong learning and well-being.
From conception through early childhood, a nurturing and stimulating environment offering structured opportunities to learn and play can have a profound influence on neurological development and improve the chances that children will complete school, experience good physical and mental health, and contribute positively to society.
Specifically, this target urges countries to ensure by 2030 “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”.
From a monitoring perspective, Target 4.2 is intended to capture a child’s development before the start of primary school, with a global measure to index the percentage of children who are “developmentally on track”. But there are major challenges to meeting and measuring this target on a global scale.
The is no consensus on what it means to be “developmentally on track” because this is in part driven by a child’s culture and context. Eventually, this aspect of the target will be captured by Indicator 4.2.1, which is currently under development. It will measure the percentage of children under 5 years of age experiencing positive and stimulating home learning environments. It will include data on health, nutrition and child poverty.
The second indicator -- 4.2.2 -- is more straightforward. It measures participation in organized learning (one year before the official primary entry age) and has just been published for the first time in the UIS Data Centre.
This indicator, which is disaggregated by sex, reflects the percentage of children who have taken part in formal pre-school learning activities the year before the official entrance age to primary school. It is expressed as a percentage of the population at the intended age one year before entry into primary education. The indicator is adjusted to take into account children of pre-primary age who have already been enrolled in primary school.
Given the well-documented benefits, it is perhaps no surprise that enrolment in pre-school has been rising. The maps below illustrate the progress countries have made in providing early childhood care and education in the past few years. A growing number of countries, especially in Latin America, now consider at least one year of pre-primary school as part of their compulsory education system.
Still, many countries are struggling to provide pre-school through their public education systems. This can help explain why administrative data are sparse. Household survey data suggest that families with the means to pay pre-school fees enrol their children in private institutions where participation is also rising. In some countries children may also have access to informal community-based centres, which are often not reflected in the data due to weak regulation of the sector.
Some limitations are worth noting. Indicator 4.2.2 measures the percentage of children who are exposed to organized learning but not the intensity of the programme, which limits the ability to draw conclusions on the extent to which children are well-prepared for schooling. Many learning programmes in the early years are offered part-time, but this can vary, which means exposure to learning environments outside the home will vary in intensity. More work is needed to ensure that the definition of learning programmes is understood and that time spent in programmes is better recorded.
Finding common ground on the measurement of early childhood care and education will require building political consensus but also new tools, training and support for countries facing a host of measurement challenges emerging from the Education 2030 agenda.
Inevitably, countries will choose different paths forward to measure early childhood development, based on their own context and experience. Thanks to the work it is doing on proficiency in reading and mathematics (Indicator 4.1.1) – another context-sensitive field – the UIS is well-placed to guide the dialogue on the measurement and implementation of these indicators as part of its mandate to support the achievement of SDG 4.