Tossing spare change at early childhood education: the root cause of global inequality

Thursday, 4 April 2019 02:00 GMT

A mother carries her baby at a camp for displaced earthquake and liquefaction victims in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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Funding early learning around the world is a smart investment. So why are 150 million children globally still denied early childhood care and education?

Justin van Fleet is president of Theirworld, a global children’s charity that works to bring better health and education to the most vulnerable children

Around the world, inequity starts at birth. This gap between children continues to grow as investment in their futures waver at an early age, especially through early childhood education.

We know that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before the age of 5, yet countries – rich and poor alike – are failing to invest in the next generation. And the lack of support for early childhood education often means the poorest and most marginalised children are missing out.

Globally, 150 million children are currently not receiving early childhood education, denied the opportunity to have the best start in life and left behind at a very fundamental stage in their learning and development.

In the state of Maryland in the United States where I grew up, only half of four-year-olds are enrolled in preschool. This is against the backdrop of known benefits:  children with one year of quality preschool are less likely to need remedial education in the K-12 system, less likely to be part of the criminal justice system and less likely to need welfare or other social services in the future.

In poorer countries, it has been estimated that returns on investing just $1 in early childhood care and education can be as high as $17 for the most disadvantaged children. In Sub-Saharan Africa it has been estimated that every dollar spent towards tripling pre-primary education enrolment would yield a $33 return on investment.

Yet investment in children equally lags, both in national and state budgets as well as through the international community’s commitment to helping the poorest countries through overseas development assistance.

Low and lower-middle income countries currently invest about one-quarter of what is needed to pay the total bill for providing a quality pre-primary education for every child. And the international community is doing very little to help bridge this gap or to incentivise further investment.

A new report by global children’s charity Theirworld, in collaboration with the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge (REAL), reveals a startling decline in early childhood  education aid: down 27percent in aid in just two years.

When we think of the goodwill of all of the countries and international institutions combined to invest in the youngest and most vulnerable children, the average person would be shocked to learn that global generosity yields just US$0.26 in aid per child per year to support early childhood education.

The situation is even more stark for a pre-primary school-aged child residing in a conflict-affected country, who will have received on average just US$0.17 in aid for their early childhood education. When we think of the equivalent, the amount is so trivial that it is nearly impossible to imagine.

The contrast between the scale of investment between rich and poorer countries is shocking and begs the question: how we can achieve equity when the disparity between investments in children vary so widely?

In New York, where I reside today, the Universal Preschool Program spends on average $6,716 annually per student for early childhood education – more than 15 times the total cost of a early childhood education in low-or-lower-middle income countries, and more than 24,000 times what is spent in international aid globally for early childhood education per child per year.

Tossing spare change at millions of young people while investing thousands in others -- before they even start first grade -- is a surefire way to perpetuate global inequality.

The results of the starkly unequal investments comes at no surprise: more than 80 percent of children in high-income countries are receiving early childhood education, while more than 80 per cent of those in low-income countries are denied access. And in rich and poor countries alike, the poorest and most vulnerable are left behind.

In 2015, all countries came together and subscribed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – 17 goals for the international community to achieve by 2030.

SDG 4 calls for equitable and quality education for all, including quality early childhood education and care. For the next generation to reach their full potential, it is not only urgent, but imperative, that governments prioritise early childhood education – both with policy and pocket books – and that the international community does more to support the most marginalised young citizens of our world, to have the best start in life.