This is the second blog in a mini-series on “The Preschool Entitlement”, a locally adaptable policy instrument to expand and improve preschool education. The mini-series comprises three blogs. This part will explain the policy instrument in more detail, focusing on the roles and responsibilities of local stakeholders and national government. The first part focused on participation in preprimary education, and the forthcoming third part will focus on the concrete steps that governments and communities can take towards implementation.
In our first NORRAG blog about the Preschool Entitlement, we highlighted the contrast between, on the one hand, insufficient government policies to address the slow expansion of public preschool education, and on the other hand the significant household demand for early learning, which expresses itself in massive under-age enrolment in primary school in areas where affordable preschool education is not available, as well as high levels of attendance of unregistered preschools.
Unfortunately, serious problems are associated with under-age enrolment such as low levels of learning achievement and a high risk of grade repetition and drop out. Unregistered preschools are often characterized by an academic orientation, scarce opportunities for play-based learning, and a language of instruction that differs from the mother tongue. And many children of preschool age are still excluded; they are neither in preschool nor in primary school.
In an ideal world, governments would solve these problems by making full-day childcare available for free to all children. But this policy is only observed in some high-income countries, and even rarer in upper-middle-income countries. For low- and lower-middle-income countries it is very difficult to finance universal full-day childcare, due to the high costs and low tax revenue.
Based on these insights, we have been looking for a policy instrument that unlocks the proven investment potential of families, communities and other stakeholders, but without relying exclusively on such private initiatives. Governments must at all times remain responsible for access, equity and quality. How can we strike a good balance between public and private; between government and market or communities; between the national and the local level? We address these governance questions below, as we unpack the proposed policy instrument.
The first analytical step in the development of this instrument was to distinguish the two main functions of preschool education: child development and childcare. In all cases, preschool enables children to develop to their full potential and to be well-prepared for primary school. This is essentially a public function as no child should be left behind. It concerns a human right, to be ensured by government.
In many cases, preprimary education has the additional function of relieving parents from the care for their children during their working day. We believe that in countries where government is currently unable to finance universal full-day childcare, it is defensible to consider this to be a joint responsibility of families, communities, and a range of stakeholders such as employers, trade unions, associations, NGOs, faith-based organizations, and international development partners. In their NORRAG blog of 16 March 2023, Taeko Okitsu and Brent Edwards Jr. highlighted the significant household demand for early learning in the Global South resulting from enhanced employment opportunities. This suggests that many families not only have a need for full daycare, but are also able to spare some money for it, though not enough for sufficient quality.
Our solution is that governments ensure a quality preschool program of three hours per day during the two or three years that precede primary school. This should be provided to all and for free (though it can be done gradually, making it more available to the poor at first), making this an entitlement in the sense of a right that is made concrete. This entitlement ensures the fulfilment of the child development function of preschool education. Because this preschool program can be offered by any actor who meets the quality standards, it makes it easy to spark local initiatives in which families and communities, possibly supported by private and faith-based actors, expand the three-hour program with additional hours of childcare, via the exact same actors as supply the three hours of preschool. The ethos of quality provided by the standards for the preschool would also tend to increase the quality of the childcare function.
This requires that the program be locally adaptable. It must be possible to provide it not only in the more common education settings, but also in community centers, near village markets, on the premises of companies, in mobile facilities, et cetera. This is not revolutionary. Localized initiatives around preschool education occur at a large scale in the Global South already and have been a key source of inspiration for the Preschool Entitlement. What is often lacking in these local initiatives is a proper connection with government policy which can give it a solid quality underpinning (assuming that the policy ensures quality). Making this connection is one of the functions of the three-hour program.
Such an open system of preschool education makes accreditation imperative. Although many providers of the three-hour program are likely to be “traditional” in the sense that they have been providing preschool and/or primary education for some time (public or private), many others may be new to the domain of education. In fact, it is the very intention of the Preschool Entitlement that communities, associations, employers, faith-based organizations and NGOs become engaged in preschool education. This requires rigorous quality management.
During an initial period of leniency, governments can assist new providers in bringing their programs up to standard and training teachers. But eventually programs can only continue to be funded from the public purse on the condition that accreditation standards are met. Some of these standards are already implied in the policy instrument as we propose it. The three-hour program should be provided during five days per week and forty weeks per year, resulting in a total of 600 hours per year. We assumed pupil-teacher ratios at or below 20 (with the exception of low-income countries where preschool teachers are so scarce that this target is unachievable). The quality standards should ideally focus on process and outcomes, more than infrastructure, beyond what is required for safety, hygiene, etc. In other words, the standards should not impose a level of infrastructure that would make it unaffordable to parents or the government.
With these parameters, providing two years of preschool education should pose no unsurmountable problems to governments of high- or middle-income countries. In low-income countries, the assistance of development partners is likely to be needed, depending on how quickly the government wishes to expand preschool education. For donors, it may be one of the most cost-effective interventions in their portfolios. First, the Preschool Entitlement will enhance the efficiency in primary education by reducing grade repetition and drop-out; by supporting learning achievement; thus saving costs, especially the cycle cost (total cost of Grade 1 to the last grade) per primary school completer. Second, by sparking local initiatives to expand the three-hour program with additional hours of childcare, the Preschool Entitlement will allow parents to earn more income, stimulating the local economy. And third, the policy instrument will also create jobs more directly and inject cash into local economies, since the demand for teachers and carers will grow.
But what about the supply of teachers? Especially in low-income countries, not only the number of “available” preschool teachers is limited, but also the capacity of preschool teacher training institutions. These and other implementation issues will be the subject of the third blog about the Preschool Entitlement.
Jan van Ravens is an independent policy advisor, formerly affiliated to the Child Study Center at Yale University. He supported the development of policies for young children in about 30 low- and middle-income countries worldwide, and wrote a number of global reports that can be found on www.janvanravens.com.
Luis Crouch is a Senior Economist Emeritus with RTI International. He works on school finance, early and foundational education, education statistics, system analysis, and the political economy of systemic reforms. He has previously worked for the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education. He has worked in all regions of the world for extended periods.