World’s poorest children missing out on early childhood education

A young child looks up at the camera
Photography from Education Innovation Awards winner Ubongo's community event for 3-6 year olds at Kyaka II refugee settlement (Theirworld/Mara Mambo Media)

Millions of children are still missing out on early childhood education due to a chronic lack of funding, Theirworld's new report finds.

  • New analysis warns of a continued chronic lack of funding by global leaders
  • Just 1.2% of the global education aid budget goes to early childhood education
  • Analysis suggests inequality sets in before children start school 

Children in the world’s poorest countries are missing out on vital care and education in the first few years of their life because of a chronic lack of funding in early childhood education and development, according to a new report published today. 

As world leaders gather in Tashkent in Uzbekistan for a global early years’ conference, new analysis by Cambridge University academics for the global children’s charity Theirworld reveals that spending on pre-primary education as a share of education aid remains extremely low.

Despite aid to pre-primary education more than doubling between 2015 and 2020 – from $101 million to $209 million, spending on pre-primary education accounted for just 1.2% of the international community’s aid to education in 2020 – up from 0.8% in 2015.

This is despite overwhelming evidence that pre-primary education is crucial to a child’s development and that children who miss out on early years learning fall behind even before they start primary school. 

UNICEF spends 30.1% of its education aid budget on pre-primary education, making it the only donor exceeding Theirworld’s recommended target of 10%. It is followed by the World Bank (7.4%) and the Global Partnership for Education (6.5%).

Of all bilateral donors, New Zealand commits the largest share of its education aid budget to pre-primary education at 3.9%, followed by Ireland (3.8%), Canada (2.9%), Belgium (2.4%), Italy (1.9%) and South Korea (1.5%). 

The UK, US, Norway, Japan, France, Germany and Denmark are among the 21 donor countries that commit less than 1% of their education aid budget to pre-primary education.

The report also analyses spending on early childhood development, which covers the package of care that a child needs to thrive in the first five years of life. This includes, providing them with adequate nutrition, stimulating them through play and protecting their health. 

While the total amount of aid to early childhood development increased from US$6.8 billion to US$7.5 billion between 2015 and 2020, it decreased as a share of total aid and remains a low priority in terms of spending. In 2020, ECD amounted to 3.3% of total aid, compared with 3.8% in 2015. 

By the time a child reaches five years old, 90% of their brain has already developed – which means the period from birth to school is the most important time of their lives. Research has shown that the impacts of inadequate care, nutrition and stimulation during these early months and years can last a lifetime.

The report – One-year update: A Better Start. A progress check on donor funding for pre-primary education and early childhood development is the fifth in a series ranking donors’ performance on pre-primary education. This report includes data for 2020, the first year of Covid-19. 

Professor Pauline Rose, director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge, and one of the report’s authors, said this is a wake-up call for international donors.

She said: “What is clear is that donors and policymakers need to make early childhood development a much stronger priority. Progress has been made, but starting from a very low base. 

“With one or two honourable exceptions, aid donors are not adopting a ‘progressive universalism’ approach that would increase investment in education across the board while ensuring funding for early childhood development for the poorest and most marginalised is a focus. Nor are the vast majority adopting Theirworld’s recommendation that 10 per cent of education spending should be devoted to the early years.”

Justin van Fleet, President of Theirworld, said: “We know that funding early childhood development in the first five years of life is one of the most powerful and cost-effective equalisers we have at our disposal to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable children can reach their full potential. 

“Tragically, many millions of the world’s most disadvantaged children are missing this window of opportunity. They are not receiving the nutrition or health care they need, growing up exposed to violence, polluted environments and extreme stress. They miss out on opportunities to learn and are deprived of the stimulation that their developing brains need to thrive. 

“When children miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they pay the price in lost potential – going through life with poor physical and mental health; struggling to learn and, later, to earn a living. Failing to give children the best start in life perpetuates cycles of poverty and inequality.

“As world leaders gather in Tashkent to discuss ways to improve early years provision, I urge them to commit to investing 10% of their education aid budgets to the early years. Nothing less is good enough.”

Notes to Editors 

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About Theirworld

Theirworld is a global children’s charity committed to ending the global education crisis and unleashing the potential of the next generation.

The organisation aims to ensure that every child has access to the best start in life, a safe place to learn and skills for the future. In 2022, Theirworld celebrates its 20th year of unlocking big change for children around the world.


About the REAL Centre

The Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre is part of the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. The Centre pioneers research into overcoming barriers to education, such as poverty, gender, ethnicity, language and disability, and promotes education as an engine for inclusive growth and sustainable development.

The Centre applies rigorous research methods, drawing together the Faculty’s strengths in development conceptualising, measuring and analysing education inequalities, and in identifying the pathways through which excellence and equality in education transforms societies. It works in partnership with organisations and individuals in priority countries, jointly defining, planning, implementing and analysing the research in ways that contribute to joint publications. And it ensures impact by linking evidence with policy at a national and global level.