Participation in early education fosters child development, but progress has stagnated- UNESCO Institute for Statistics

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Early childhood education is one of seven key benchmark indicators of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 highlighting it’s importance for student development, wellbeing, and for building resilience. Early schooling is recognized to stimulate children’s readiness for school and foster their future learning experience, yet participation in organized learning (one year before the official primary entry age) remains far from universal. 

The majority of regions have made progress in increasing educational participation among young children, and in 2020, three out of every four children globally were enrolled in organized learning at a pre-primary or early childhood education programme, or as an underage student at the primary level. However, progress at the global level has stagnated, following steady increases from 2010 to 2015. 

The 2023 SDG 4 Scorecard follows progress made by countries on benchmarks with a focus of early childhood education. Last week, the directors of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), Silvia Montoya, and Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, Manos Antoninis, participated in a webinar with the Organisation Mondial pour l’Éducation Préscholaire (OMEP). The discussion was focus on country progress toward national benchmarks for SDG Indicator 4.2.2 which measures the participation rate in organized learning (one year before the official primary entry age), by sex. They were also consider policies for shifting the needle on participation in early childhood education (ECE).  

Three quarters of children globally are in pre-primary but there are wide disparities among regions 

At the regional level, participation rates are highest in Europe and Northern America and in Latin America and the Caribbean, where almost 95% of children were enrolled in an educational programme. Countries in the two regions sub-Saharan Africa, and Northern Africa and Western Asia, have made consistent gains since 2010, yet as of 2020, approximately half of children of pre-primary school age in these two SDG regions were not in education.

Sub-Saharan Africa faces the particular challenge of strong population growth which places additional pressure on countries hoping to increase pre-primary enrolment rates. As identified in the SDG 4 Scorecard – a joint report by the UIS and the GEM Report – there were 70 million 4- to 5-year-olds in sub-Saharan Africa in early 2023. In three years, it is projected that this cohort will grow by 1 million each year on average over the next 20 years, surpassing Central and Southern Asia as the region with the largest population in this age group.

Two out of five countries have not reached gender parity – mainly at the expense of boys 

Although all regions have achieved gender parity in participation rates, this masks disparities at the country level, with four in ten countries not yet reaching parity.

Girls and boys have equal levels of participation in early schooling at the global level and across all regions. However, parity ratios at the aggregate level mask gender disparities within countries. Indeed, among countries with recent data, 40% have not reached gender parity. 

In Eastern and South-Eastern Asia half of countries have not met gender parity, and in Oceania, and sub-Saharan Africa, the share is approximately two-thirds. Disparities can occur to the disadvantage of either gender, although participation rates are higher among girls relative to boys in the majority of countries not at parity.

Participation rate in organized learning (one year before the official primary entry age)

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Indicator 4.2.2 is one of seven benchmark indicators used to monitor progress towards SDG 4

The SDG 4 Scorecard report considers progress in pre-primary participation rates and compares it to both the national benchmarks countries have set for themselves, and feasible benchmarks based on historical trends. In 2022, at the Transforming Education Summit, benchmarks were agreed for seven key SDG 4 indicators, including Indicator 4.2.2 on early childhood education. The goal of benchmarks is to establish reference points to enable countries to gauge progress towards their ultimate objective for these indicators. 

Of the 207 countries reporting data for Indicator 4.2.2, 149 have set benchmark values for 2025 and/or 2030 and the progress dashboard indicates that 28% of countries are making fast progress. However, while national benchmarks show what countries aim to achieve, these goals are not always realistic based on historical trends and what may be feasible in their contexts and situations. If countries continue on the same trajectories as they have in the past, the UIS and the GEM Report estimate that 38% are achieving fast progress toward a feasible rate of early childhood pre-primary participation. 

Participation in early childhood education as measured by Indicator 4.2.2 is an important starting point for putting children on a strong path toward success throughout their years of schooling. It is clear that progress has been made – but much more is needed for every child to have a chance to enter pre-school to obtain early socialization and skills for school and life. 

Data sources for Indicator 4.2.2: 

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) provides data for Indicator 4.2.2 and other education indicators, including new information from the March Data Refresh

Data are available on the SDG 4 Data Explorer and are searchable by region and country, and according to sex, urban/rural living, and family wealth quintile. From an equity perspective, understanding which children are (or are not) going to pre-school helps policymakers target interventions towards those most in need. 

  • Administrative data from schools and other centres of organized learning.
  • Administrative data from ministries of education on the official entrance age to primary education. 
  • Household surveys on enrolment by single year of age in early learning programmes.
  • Population censuses and surveys for population estimates by single year of age (if using administrative data on enrolment).

Data required to calculate this indicator: 

  • Number of children participating in organized learning activities by single year of age;
  • Population estimates by single year of age (if using administrative data); and
  • Data on the official entrance age to primary education.

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