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30 Mar 2023
Jan van Ravens, Luis Crouch and Carlos Aggio

[Part 1] The Preschool Entitlement, a Locally Adaptable Policy Instrument to Expand and Improve Preschool Education - Participation in preprimary education

A recent publication from RTI International highlights the slow expansion of preprimary education worldwide and proposes a concrete policy instrument to address this: the Preschool Entitlement. This entails the universal provision of two years of 600 hours of quality preschool education for free, which local actors (public, private, faith-based) can adapt to local circumstances and expand with additional hours of daycare. In this NORRAG Blog, the problem of the slow expansion of preprimary education is analyzed by three of the publication’s authors: Jan van Ravens, independent policy advisor, Luis Crouch, emeritus senior economist at RTI, and Carlos Aggio, Research Fellow at Centro Interdisciplinario de Estudios en Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación (CIECTI).

This blog is part of a mini-series, comprising three blogs. It will be followed by one that explains the policy instrument in more detail, focusing on the roles and responsibilities of local stakeholders and national government. A third blog will present the concrete steps that governments, local actors and development partners can take to implement the Preschool Entitlement. The full publication about the Preschool Entitlement can be accessed here.


At first glance, the indicators on participation in preprimary education paint a bleak picture. But many children in the preprimary age group appear to be enrolled in primary school. These children are in the wrong place, receive an education that is not age-appropriate, and run a high risk of repeating grades and dropping out. But their education is paid for. Many other children attend unregistered preschools. The quality of their education is questionable but they are attending. This blog will show that there is a fairly high level of investment in early learning already, and that there is need for a policy instrument that channels this considerable investment potential in the proper direction.

If we look strictly at the official education statistics on preprimary enrolment, there is little cause for hope. In low-income countries, only one out of five children had access to preprimary education in 2020, while three out of five were enrolled globally. The adoption of SDG 4.2 in 2015 does not seem to have accelerated the expansion of preprimary education, as figure 1 shows.


Figure 1.

Average preprimary education gross enrollment ratio by level of country income (1970-2020)

Source: compiled by the authors using data from World Bank Data


It can be seen from figure 1 that the trendlines for lower- and upper-middle-income countries (and with these the global trend) show a clear increase in preprimary enrolment from the mid-1990s onwards. More recently, however, these lines have been flattening at levels of 58% in lower-middle-income countries, 78% in upper-middle-income countries, and 60% at global level. High-income countries seem to stagnate at around 85% while low-income countries seem stuck at only 20%.

Figure 2 zooms in on the low-income countries. In addition to the trendline of preprimary enrolment in general (as in figure 1) it presents separate trendlines for public and private provision. A relatively new indicator is the Adjusted Net Enrolment Ratio (ANER) that pertains to the number of children who are enrolled one year before the official primary entry age. Do note that the ANER does not specify in which form of education these children are enrolled; they may be in preprimary, but they may also have enrolled early in primary school.


Figure 2. Preprimary gross enrollment in low-income countries, 1990–2020

Source: compiled by the authors using data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and The World Bank Data, and own calculations


Figure 2 shows that public preprimary education in low-income countries did not expand at all until 2011. The small increase in overall enrolment in these years was entirely accounted for by private preschool institutions. But in 2011, possibly as a result of ongoing advocacy efforts at global and national level, governments began to invest more in preprimary education. This growth started to fade in 2015. One hypothesis is that SDG 4.2 – which calls for providing one year of pre-primary education to all children – is too unambitious and seduced countries to posterioritize pre-primary education in favor of more challenging SDGs within and/or beyond education.

The turning point in the trend of private sector contribution to preprimary education in 2012 seems to suggest that the increased capacity of public pre-primary education attracted families who would otherwise have enrolled their children in private preschool institutions. If true, this would mean that public and private preprimary education are like communicating vessels, limiting the impact of public investment on overall enrolment. Better targeting is needed to prevent this.

Figure 2 also presents an enigma: the ANER began to increase quite sharply in 2018 while the trendline for preprimary education remained flat. There are at least two hypotheses, and they do not exclude one another. The first is that governments have responded to SDG 4.2 by spending more on enrolment in the last year of preprimary education and by financing this (partly) by spending relatively less on enrolment in the earlier years of pre-primary. In other words, governments would have shifted public funding from the earlier years to the last year of preprimary, thereby keeping overall enrolment constant. The second hypothesis is that many of the children comprised in the ANER are not enrolled in preprimary education but in the first grade of primary school. In fact, it is known from other sources, first, that enrolment in primary education before the official entry age is widespread in low-income countries, especially in places where no affordable preschools are available; second, that the risk of grade repetition is so high that parents almost take it for granted; and third, that the level of learning achievement can be very limited in such cases. The combination of these phenomena has been referred to as the weak foundations syndrome by Crouch et al. (2020).

While these developments are problematic, there is also a silver lining: parents seem highly committed to early education. One way or another, parents appear to be keen on having their children spend a good part of the day in an education facility, partly because parents value their children’s early development and partly because of the need to have their children cared for during the working day.

This parental commitment to early learning is also underscored by the attendance of unregistered preschools. Because these preschools are excluded from statistical reporting processes, the attending children are not included in official enrolment ratios. But they are included in household surveys. In figure 3 we present, by region, the outcomes of an analysis of 82 household surveys covering 2010–2016. We contrasted this with the official gross enrollment ratios GERs (in 2013) of those regions, and added outcomes from a survey in peri-urban settlements.


Figure 3. Adjusted Net Attendance Rates (2010–2016) and GERs (2013), Regional Averages

Source: Authors own elaboration based on Zaw et al. (2021), Bidwell & Watine (2014), UNESCO Global Monitoring Report and World Bank Database.


Figure 3 shows that attendance rates from household surveys are consistently higher than GERs, especially in Africa and the Middle East. Average attendance in urban areas was no less than 80%, while attendance in peri-urban settlements near four African metropoles was higher still, at 85% on average. Although the quality of these unregistered preschools may be questionable, we might speak of a silent revolution: the worldwide reduction of poverty – especially extreme poverty – seems to have led to a situation in which many families have a higher and more stable income from work. This means that families have both the need and the means to enroll their children in preprimary education during their working day.

Weak foundations and a silent revolution. These were two of the sources of inspiration for a feasible and affordable policy instrument called the Preschool Entitlement. This guarantees two years of 600 hours of quality preschool education to every child, but also stimulates families and communities to supplement this with additional hours of daycare. In our next blog we will elaborate this further.



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

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.

Carlos Aggio is a Research Fellow at Centro Interdisciplinario de Estudios en Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación (CIECTI) and Lecturer (tenure) of Economics at Universidad Nacional de Lomas de Zamora. Currently living in Buenos Aires from where he is engaged in several research projects on education but also on other international development issues. He works on the monitoring of basic education goals, their associated financial costs and the official development assistance required, with particular focus on early childhood education (experience in Latin America, Africa and ECA countries).



Crouch, L. A., Merseth King, K., Olefir, A., Saeki, H., & Savrimootoo, T. (2020). Taking preprimary programs to scale in developing countries: Multi-source evidence to improve primary school completion rates. International Journal of Early Childhood52(2), 159-174.

Zaw, H. T., Mizunoya, S. & Yu, X. (2021). An equity analysis of pre-primary education in the developing world. International Journal of Educational Research, 109(2), 1-12.

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