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Q&A: Prioritizing early childhood education in low- and middle-income countries

[Editor’s Note: In this interview, Dr. Michelle Neuman, a senior fellow for Results for Development and faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, and Shawn Powers, a senior economist for the World Bank’s Global Education Practice, join Kelly Toves, the R4D Insights blog editor, to discuss their recently-published paper, “Political Prioritization of Early Childhood Education in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.” In their paper, Dr. Neuman and Mr. Powers explore which factors help or hinder efforts to make early childhood education a political priority in low- and middle-income countries, and provide a comparative analysis of four countries that are part of the Early Learning Partnership Systems Research Program: Ethi­opia, Liberia, Pakistan and Tanzania.]

Michelle and Shawn, thanks for taking the time to chat with me about your latest paper in the International Journal of Educational Research focused on the political economy of scaling quality early childhood education (ECE). I’m looking forward to hearing more about it.

Before we dive in, can we zoom out a bit and break down why it’s important for countries to prioritize ECE?

Shawn: Access to quality ECE has lifelong benefits both for children and for the countries where they live. The part about quality is really important — ECE needs to provide not only a safe space, but also developmentally appropriate activities and interactions, which are quite different than what older children need. Good quality ECE helps children develop social and emotional skills that continue to matter even in adulthood. It helps children come to primary school prepared to learn, which improves efficiency and return on investment for Ministries of Education. Good ECE can also promote equity, by helping to compensate for differences between children coming from more and less advantaged home environments.

And to what extent have the four countries you analyzed — Ethiopia, Liberia, Pakistan and Tanzania — made ECE a political priority?

Shawn: Policymakers in these countries, among many others, have made a strong rhetorical commitment to ECE, but the extent to which that translates into real prioritization is more mixed. There was no case where funding, whether from government or international donors, is keeping pace with the need. Among the countries in the study, Ethiopia has seen the most rapid expansion of ECE. By scaling up a program called O-Class, a one-year school readiness program for 6 year olds, Ethiopia increased its enrollments in ECE from less than 0.5 million in 2011 to nearly 4 million in 2016. This was a real achievement, but it relied heavily on local in-kind contributions (including from parents), since there wasn’t a central budget for O-Class and limited donor financing. Our work suggests that governments in low- and middle-income countries are persuadable on the importance of ECE, but we are not seeing that translate yet into sustained follow-through and resource provision.

What are some of the enabling factors for the political prioritization of ECE?

Michelle: To the extent we do see prioritization of ECE, the power of ideas is an important part of the story. Countries are responsive to global commitments like SDG 4.2, advocacy and technical assistance from the international community, and evidence from neuroscience, economics, and other disciplines. Having highly visible political champions is another enabling factor: in Liberia, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s personal engagement helped put ECE on the national agenda. This type of policy entrepreneurship was also important in Tanzania and Punjab, if not at quite as high a level as in Liberia.

We mentioned a moment ago that Ethiopia has seen the most rapid expansion of ECE, and a few of the factors we studied were stronger there than in the other case studies. These include the cohesiveness of the policy community around ECE, a clear delineation of leadership on ECE in the Ministry of Education, and broad-based agreement on the desired service delivery model (O-Class).

What factors hinder political prioritization for ECE?

Michelle: There are many factors, so I’ll just focus on a few. Although there are many different individuals and organizations involved in ECE, they generally have not successfully coalesced to encourage the government to prioritize this issue. The few early childhood advocacy coalitions that we identified have faced funding and sustainability issues. In general, civil society groups tend to focus more on implementation of early childhood interventions than on advocacy.

Another barrier is that none of the countries we studied collect data on early learning outcomes and programs comprehensively, which hinders efforts to understand the problem and assess progress toward quality and learning goals. Advocates sometimes refer to global research and examples of quality, but these sources of evidence have been less persuasive to policymakers.

Not surprisingly, competing education priorities – poor early grade learning outcomes, out-of-school children, bumpy transitions to secondary education – consistently receive more policymaker attention and domestic funding than ECE. These issue areas are backed by more powerful national champions and stronger coalitions. Similarly, the main international funders of basic education in these countries provide little, if any, financial support to ECE.

What are some of the key takeaways for policymakers, INGOs, and other stakeholders interested in scaling of quality ECE?

Shawn: We identify four main actions to improve the positioning of ECE on the policy agenda in LMICs. First, it is important to build the capacity of civil society organizations currently engaged in direct service provision to help channel grassroots energy toward advocacy for greater access to quality early learning opportunities.

Second, governments care about improving school readiness and reducing repetition and dropout in the early primary grades, but they need more evidence on effective ECE models for achieving these outcomes, especially in their own contexts.

Third, countries need to focus on effective governance and leadership for early learning. Given that early childhood services involve multiple sectors (including education, health, and social protection), there is no one-size-fits-all model. Jamaica’s Early Childhood Commission and Chile Crece Contigo are potential examples.

Fourth, we’d like to see better collaboration among donors and governments, including more pooling of resources. This collaboration might help attract a wider set of funders to the sub-sector, which is really needed to boost international financing for ECE.

Finally, as countries continue to navigate the set of interrelated crises the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought, what can policymakers do to strengthen ECE as they work to make education systems more resilient to future shocks?

Michelle: This is a timely question! Our data were collected before COVID-19 shut down pre-primary education for more than 180 million children around the world. We worked on a follow-up study to better understand the extent to which these same countries have prioritized financing and provision of the early years during the pandemic. We’re finding that ECE is barely mentioned in many countries’ COVID-19 education response and reopening plans. Perhaps not surprisingly, young children have been underserved by distance learning during school closures. Ministries of Education have focused on reopening schools for older children who are studying for exams and have been more reluctant to bring back younger children due to concerns about their compliance with mask-wearing and other health protocols. So there is cause for concern.

It is not too late for policymakers to protect ECE now and during future shocks. They can make sure that young learners, and their teachers, have the academic and psycho-social support they need when they return to the classroom. Looking ahead, early childhood specialists in Ministries of Education need a seat at the table to develop emergency preparedness plans — governments and donors should mobilize their funding around these national priorities. We also need data on various distance learning modalities, including low-tech approaches, so lack of effective interventions is not an excuse for inaction. Finally, our research shows some of the areas where political and institutional factors can be strengthened so that ECE is less vulnerable to cuts in the future.

Photo © Aisha Faquir/World Bank

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