Early learning | Education | UNICEF

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Early learning

© UNICEF/UN066561/Ohanesian
Lorna Adhiambo, age 35, takes a break from teaching to play with her daughter Meg Neema, 1, at the Little Rock Early Childhood Development Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

Early childhood care and education is the most cost-effective and efficient investment to start a lifelong path of learning and to ensure all children have a fair chance to reach their potential.

An early start on education levels the playing field. It offers children marginalized by poverty, ethnic origin, disability, location or gender the boost they need to fully engage in education.

A quality early learning programme is one that helps children reach their developmental potential and gain the knowledge and skills they need for success in school.

Quality early learning has wide-ranging benefits for society. It means more children attend school and fewer drop out, repeat grades or need remedial or special education. Education systems become more efficient and can better deliver on their purpose – giving all children a quality education.

Early learning in numbers

Access to early learning and pre-primary enrolment has increased in the past decade but many children are missing out. Unfortunately, these are the most marginalized children, the ones who need early learning the most.

While there are many private pre-primary education services, children from poor families, those in remote rural areas, children who speak minority languages, children with disabilities, and children affected by emergencies cannot afford them and are therefore missing out.
Across the world:

• More than half of all 3 to 6 year olds (159 million children) have no access to pre-primary education.

• Children living in the poorest households are up to 10 times less likely to attend pre-primary than those in the richest.

• Among 3- to 4-year-olds, children in the richest households are almost six times more likely to attend an early childhood education programme than children from the poorest.

• Only 25 per cent of children in countries studied are developmentally on track in reading and math, which dampens their prospects for school success.

A big part of the problem is a lack of investment, by governments in low and middle-income countries, in early learning and education. Many spend only between 0.1% and 0.2% of Gross National Product (GNP) on preschool education.

Unless governments, donors and partners allocate more resources to quality early learning programmes, especially for the poorest children, the learning crisis will continue and economic disparities will widen.

UNICEF’s work in early learning
UNICEF works to give every child a fair start in school.  We support early learning in 143 countries around the globe. Our programming focuses on:

• Equity and affordability:  Increasing access to quality early learning in all contexts, by growing strong programmes, building evidence for innovative approaches, and helping caregivers and teachers develop. We also help governments deliver conflict-sensitive early learning and psychosocial support to young children and their families in humanitarian situations.

• Support: In policy, training and infrastructure. Working with national governments, partners and networks at all levels to strengthen the delivery of early education services, and enhance their quality, budgets and monitoring.

• Data, monitoring and evidence: Through The Early Childhood Development Index within UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys, and partnering with initiatives such Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes project to develop new metrics.

• Advocacy and communication: Creating a movement, with partners, to increase demand for parent and community services and secure investment in early education through political commitment.

How to develop paths to quality early learning?

There are many ways to prepare children for school and provide quality early learning opportunities through home and community‐based programmes.

Evidence shows there are key ingredients to make early learning programmes successful:

• Programmes are operated by trained educators
• Programmes use child-centred approaches
• Programmes support and engage families and communities in children’s learning
• Programmes support children’s mother-tongue language
• Programmes use culturally-relevant materials and offer opportunities to play and explore.

> Read more how Ethiopia’s accelerated school readiness programme is reaching children who miss out on preschool.
> Read more about UNICEF’s work in
Early Childhood Development




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