Are countries ready to invest in early childhood education?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills 

There is now a widespread consensus that high-quality early childhood education is critically important for children. Research continues to find that early childhood education can compensate for a lack of learning opportunities at home, and can help children begin to develop the social and emotional skills needed for success later in life. Few policy makers would now question the benefits of high-quality early childhood education.

As a result, early childhood education systems have expanded. As documented in Education at a Glance 2016, on average across OECD countries enrolment in pre-primary education among 3-year-olds rose from 54% in 2005 to 69% in 2014, and among 4-year-olds from 73% to 85%. Expansion policies include the extension of compulsory education to younger children, free or universal early childhood education, and the creation of programmes that integrate care with formal pre-primary education.

Yet, the available data show that many countries still have a long way to go. As the chart above illustrates, enrolment rates among 2- to 4-year-olds still fall below 50% in Ireland, Poland, Switzerland, the United States and in OECD partner countries Argentina and Colombia. In some countries that are known for the overall quality of their education, such as Australia, Finland, Japan and the Netherlands, enrolment rates among this age group do not exceed 70%.

Are countries hesitant to translate their acknowledgement of the benefits of early childhood education into adequate funding? A look at how early childhood education is financed suggests they are. The latest Education Indicators in Focus brief looks at how much governments allocate to early childhood education and where the money comes from. The overall picture is disappointing.

As seen in the chart above, overall annual public expenditure on early childhood education per pupil varies enormously, from close to USD 2 000 in Estonia to close to USD 18 000 in Norway. Most countries still spend less than USD 5 000 per pupil per year. In many countries there is still a large gap between public per-student funding in early childhood education and primary education; yet from an educational point of view, there are no valid arguments for being stingy with early childhood education.

The expansion of early childhood education coincided with radical changes in the economy. As more women entered the work force, the demand for childcare and early childhood education grew. But budget constraints, fiscal austerity following the economic crisis, and the increased cost of other levels of education made it difficult to keep up with the demand and with growing policy interest. Thus, many countries turned to various cost-sharing arrangements.

In most countries households continue to assume a large share of the financial burden. The conservative view that early childhood education is a kind of surrogate “family”, rather than an autonomous learning environment in its own right, provided some ideological justification for cost-sharing. The Education Indicators in Focus brief shows that, on average across OECD countries, the private sector finances 31% of expenditure on early childhood educational development programmes and 17% of pre-primary programmes. Another cost-sharing mechanism for early childhood education makes local and regional levels of government responsible for co-funding. On average across OECD countries, local governments provide 48% of total public funding, even before accounting for transfers from regional and central governments.

The overall picture of the economics of early childhood education is thus extremely complicated, with various sources of funding complementing each other, complex systems of transfers between levels of government, and intricate combinations of public and private funding. Different systems of tax credits and fiscal expenditures contribute to the complexity of the funding arrangements. As a result, governance, policy, oversight and accountability arrangements are also often complicated and sometimes even contradictory. Clearly, these are not the most favourable conditions for expanding early childhood education.

Yet, as the chart above illustrates, there are also countries that seem to have committed themselves to allocating adequate resources to early childhood education. It is interesting to see that higher levels of funding also correlate with higher levels of participation. With the exception of Estonia, Israel and Spain, countries that attract over 80% of 2- to 4-year-olds to early childhood education also ensure relatively high per-student funding from public sources.

Early childhood education can no longer be seen as a luxury; it is neither just a welcome add-on to those education systems that can afford it nor dispensable to those that can’t. The evidence of its benefits for both individuals and society as a whole is just too overwhelming to justify the kinds of timid funding policies that are revealed in the data.

Education Indicators in Focus No. 52 –  Who bears the cost of early childhood education and how does it affect enrolment?
Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
Starting Strong 2017 – Key OECD Indicators on Early Childhood Education and Care
Starting Strong V – Transitions from Early Childhood Education and Care to Primary Education

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Chart source: Semeraro, G. (2017), Who bears the cost of early childhood education and how does it affect enrolment?, Education Indicators in Focus, No. 52, OECD Publishing, Paris, DOI:

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