The evidence is incontrovertible. Learning begins at and even before birth. Brain development is extremely rapid. Human brain volume is half the size of an adult brain at birth, doubles in the first year and reaches 90% of adult size by age 3.
Learning and development during the early years of life have substantial effects on children’s later educational achievement and their adult human capital. There are clear gradations between children in low-, middle- and high-income countries, for instance, exposure to poverty, stunted growth, development, home stimulation and participation in pre-primary programmes. These disparities in early life increase intractable inequalities in later life. An estimated 250 million children under 5 years of age in low- and middle-income countries (43%) will likely lose adult earnings of about 26% of average income due to learning losses carried forward into schooling. Despite this, most low- and middle-income country governments in 2014 spent less than 5% of their educational budgets on pre-primary programmes and donor contributions to pre-primary education amounted to a mere 2% of their spending on basic education.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established by the United Nations Assembly and their education-related targets include early development and pre-primary — 4.2. “all girls and boys should have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education” — in addition to primary, secondary — 4.1 “free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education” — and tertiary education — 4.3 “ensuring that men and women have equal access to affordable and quality tertiary education”. Human development and learning are continuous and progressive, making improvements in primary, secondary and tertiary, critically dependent on early childhood development and pre-primary education.
A recent Nature article modelled within-country inequalities in primary, secondary and tertiary education and forecast progress towards SDG targets 4.1. and 4.3, with the glaring omission of 4.2. A subsequent Editorial on the paper noted the data deficits in the education sector and called for more data to identify which groups of children need most help. Our work at the Harnessing Global Data Advance Young Children’s Learning and Development Collaborative attempts to fill both these gaps.
Firstly, our paper Measuring and forecasting progress in education: what about early childhood? used new analyses to illustrate the medium and long-term impacts of early learning. We did this by linking participation in pre-primary programmes to adolescent mathematics and science scores in 73 countries. We found that participation in one year of a pre-primary programme is associated with higher mathematics and science scores, compared to no pre-primary programme participation, with greater benefits associated with two years of participation. We also estimated costs to countries, in terms of loss in future adult earnings of not making pre-primary programmes universal ‒ the ‘cost of inaction’. We find these costs to be comparable to or greater than, current governmental expenditures on all levels of education, with losses being greatest for lower-income countries. Inadequate investments in the early years incur significant future costs, particularly to improved human capital and increased adult earnings.
Secondly, our Collaborative brings together a multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral group of experts in their fields, to advance the learning and development of young children by maximising the use of global data. For example, we have shown that closures of pre-primary programmes for six months due to COVID-19 led to an estimated loss in future earnings of about 2.5%. Further, global twelve-month closures in early childcare and education services may lead to more than 22 million additional children falling behind in their development, with obvious knock on effects for their learning in adolescence and earnings in adulthood.
We can no longer consider education to begin when children start their first grade at school. The full benefits of free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education and equal access to affordable tertiary education will not be realised until the foundations for success in school and lifelong learning is firmly established in the earliest years of life. Interventions and investments in children’s pre-primary learning must be made along a continuum with primary, secondary, and tertiary education.
Investments are particularly necessary during and post-COVID-19, when millions of children are at risk of deprivation during their crucial months and years of early development. COVID-19 will slow down progress towards the SDGs, beginning with SDG 4.2, as pre-primary programmes are closed, poverty levels rise, and inequalities are amplified. We must act now to protect children and societies from these avoidable losses.
Read more about our research article, Measuring and forecasting progress in education: what about early childhood? published by npj Science of Learning.