Working toward a quality education for all.

Realigning Our Priorities – A Focus on Early Childhood

by Molly Curtiss, 

by Molly Curtiss, Theirworld 

By adopting the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4), states around the world committed to the ambitious goal of achieving access to inclusive and quality education for all and promoting life long learning by 2030, reaffirming their commitment to education after the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals. Despite this renewed focus, international aid to education has been steadily decreasing since 2010 and remains inadequate to accomplish SDG4 by 2030. As the funding currently stands, even if low and middle-income countries increase their domestic funding to education significantly, we will still have a projected annual financing gap of US$39 billion.

The problem is not just the amount of funding for education, but how the available resources are being spent. In the past decade, tertiary education consistently received the highest proportion of education aid of any education sector, beating out even primary education year after year. Moreover, during this period, seven of the top fifteen donors to education increased the portion of their aid allocated to higher education and consequently decreased the portion to basic education.

Further, this aid to tertiary education isn’t being spent sustainably. A large percentage of growing funds to higher education have been used not to strengthen university systems in recipient countries but rather to provide scholarships for students to attend higher education institutions in donor countries. In 2012, for example, “for every US$1 disbursed in direct aid to early childhood care and education, the equivalent of US$58 went to support students from recipient countries at the post-secondary level in donor countries.”

If our goal is to improve equity and ultimately to achieve universal access, these unbalanced priorities are deeply problematic. While investing in higher education is generally a good thing, in many countries higher education funding is most likely to benefit children and youth from more advantaged backgrounds, who already had the means and access necessary to complete primary and secondary school. For instance, more than 90% of university students in Malawi and 57% in the Republic of Congo come from the wealthiest quintile. In contrast, children from the poorest and most marginalized circumstances need assistance long before higher education. Many don’t have access to even a basic education, including pre-primary and primary school, and most will never have the chance to reach university. Privileging funding for tertiary education means the majority of education aid won’t ever reach kids that need it most. Helping the most advantaged is not the purpose of donor aid.

An additional problem is that most aid for tertiary education doesn’t go to low-income countries but rather to upper middle-income countries like China. The amount of this aid often exceeds the funding to the poorest countries for primary education. For example, funding for higher education given annually to Algeria, China, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey was on average the same amount as the total aid for basic education given to the 36 lowest income countries in 2010-2011. Aid for higher education is by and large not targeted at the countries most in need and within recipient countries tends to go to those who already have advantages. This approach of prioritizing aid to higher education rather than to pre-primary or primary can further entrench inequities in education and widens the achievement gap for disadvantaged students.

So what’s the alternative?

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that early investments in children’s learning and development lead to higher academic attainment in primary school and work effectively to close the achievement gap for disadvantaged students. Numerous studies have demonstrated that early childhood development programs are more successful and less expensive than later initiatives for older children or adults and result in bigger payoffs down the road. Early learning and pre-school programs are especially impactful for disadvantaged children, helping get them on the right track for success in primary school and catch up to more advantaged students. While aid for higher education generally only reaches privileged students who are already successful, aid for early childhood programs works to prepare all children, and particularly poor and marginalized kids, for academic achievement.

Rate of return to investment in human capital Investing in early childhood programs, including early learning and pre-school initiatives, is by far the best bet for getting quality education to the poorest and most marginalized children and ensuring their success in school. Current investments do the exact opposite of what the evidence recommends, prioritizing higher education most and pre-primary education least. Professor Stephen Lye illustrated this point exceptionally during his speech at the World Bank and UNICEF’s launch of their early childhood development alliance on April 14. His graph (at right) clearly shows how current investments in education aid work at cross-purposes to what studies suggest are the most effective interventions.

If we actually want to approach expanding access to quality education through a lens of equity, it is critical to not only close the funding gap but also to change our aid priorities. Education aid needs to be realigned to better reflect scientific evidence, and specifically funding for early childhood development programs must increase. Otherwise, the most privileged children will continue to benefit and the most marginalized will still be left out.

Molly Curtiss is a Research Consultant at Theirworld. 

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