Target 4.2 – Early childhood

A young Peruvian boy completes his schoolwork.

Credit: Lucero del Castillo Ames/GEM Report

Target 4.2 – Early childhood

Key Messages

  • In 2015, 69% of children participated in organized learning at the pre-primary or primary level one year before official primary entry age; regional figures ranged from highs of 95% in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Europe and Northern America to a low of 42% in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • In 52 low and middle income countries between 2010 and 2015, just over 2 children aged 3 or 4 from the poorest fifth of households attended organized learning for every 10 children from the richest fifth, and 5 children in rural areas attended for every 10 children in urban areas.
  • Just 33% of countries legally stipulate at least one year of free early childhood education, 21% one year of compulsory early childhood education and 17% one year free and compulsory.
  • Stimulating home environments are important for child development. In countries including Benin, Honduras and Swaziland, less than half of children had adults engaging with them in activities to promote learning, such as telling stories, singing, playing or drawing.
  • National approaches to ensuring quality standards in early childhood education vary. A review of 34 low and middle income countries found only 14 had an ‘established’ set of standards; of those, only 5, including Mauritius and Samoa, had compliance monitoring mechanisms.
  • Globally, 41% of young children are enrolled in private pre-schools, making quality assurance of private education critical. In Indonesia, 97% of children attend private pre-schools, only 8% of which are accredited.
  • Richer countries invest considerable resources in assessing pupil–teacher interaction and the extent to which it enables children’s autonomy and stimulation. In Chile, educators in public municipal schools have their classes video-recorded.
  • The community and parents can play a crucial monitoring role by taking part in surveys, school inspections and meetings with local authorities.

Regarding early childhood education, just one-third of countries worldwide legally stipulate at least one year of free provision, 21% one year of compulsory provision and 17% one year both free and compulsory. Even so, in 2015, 69% of children one year younger than the primary education entrance age participated in organized learning, which is the first global indicator for target 4.2. Regional shares ranged from 95% in Europe and Northern America and in Latin America and the Caribbean to 42% in sub-Saharan Africa. Many countries have seen large enrolment increases since 2000 (Figure 9).

In much of the world, early childhood education opportunities are very unequally distributed. Across 52 low and middle income countries between 2010 and 2015, just over two 3- to 4-year-olds from the poorest fifth of households attended an organized learning programme for every ten children from the richest fifth. In Serbia and Nigeria, the attendance rate was over 80% for the richest children and no more than 10% for the poorest.

The rural–urban attendance rate gap exceeded 40 percentage points in Tunisia and Turkmenistan, while there was near parity or even a slight advantage for rural children in Bangladesh, Jamaica, Mexico, Palestine, Saint Lucia, Sao Tome and Principe, and Thailand.

Figure 9: Early childhood education participation has increased rapidly in many countries

The second global indicator aims to capture early childhood development, but views differ on what should be measured with respect to the health, psychosocial and learning dimensions. According to the UNICEF Early Child Development Index, which is the main source of data, less than two-thirds of children aged 36 to 59 months were considered developmentally on track in countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mauritania and Nepal. Considerable effort is under way to further develop the methodology of this indirectly assessed measure.

Home environments exert a strong influence on early childhood development. In almost half the countries with data, at least one-quarter of children aged 36 to 59 months lived in households where caregivers did not engage in four or more activities to promote learning and school readiness, such as reading or looking at picture books, singing, counting or drawing. The poorest households were less likely than the richest households to engage in such activities.


See previous year’s report on Target 4.2