Getting the best start

Miho Taguma
Senior Analyst, Early Childhood and Schools Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Given the current background of fiscal constraint, is public funding of early childhood education and care programmes a sound investment?

As more and more women have been entering the labour force since the 1970s, access to pre-school services has improved across OECD countries. Although in the 1970s and 1980s, early childhood education and care policy was put into place to facilitate women’s entry into the labour force, in recent years it has become more child-centred, focusing instead on the child’s development and improving educational outcomes. As inequalities, which are often present well before children begin primary school, are likely to increase over time, early childhood policies can be a component of anti-poverty and educational equity measures as well.

As the latest issue of the OECD’s brief series Education Indicators in Focus shows, countries vary widely on all aspects of early childhood education and care, from their policies and systems to their quality. In most countries, the proportion of children enrolled in pres-school programmes has significantly grown in recent decades. Although on average across the OECD, 79% of 4-year-olds are enrolled in such programmes, it ranges from more than 95% in Belgium, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom, to between 30% and 60% in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Greece, Poland and Switzerland, and to less than 30% in Indonesia and Turkey.

But what are the benefits of early childhood programmes? PISA scores have shown how important access to these programmes can be for improving children’s outcomes in later stages of life. Data also shows that pre-school can improve children’s cognitive abilities and have a positive impact on reading performance at age 15. It also helps children, especially those from disadvantaged or immigrant backgrounds, to build a strong foundation for life skills. But what is more important, quantity or quality?

There are also vast differences among countries on all of the quality indicators: from the number of children per staff – which ranges from more than 20 pupils per teacher in China, France, Israel, Mexico and Turkey, to fewer than 10 in Chile, Iceland, New Zealand, Slovenia and Sweden – to the length of the programmes – with the majority of countries offering at least one year of  for free, including the Netherlands (for 4  and 5 year olds); England and Scotland (for 3  and 4 year olds); and France, Israel, Mexico, Portugal and Sweden (for all 3 6-year-olds).

Countries’ expenditure on ECE as a percentage of GDP also varies significantly – ranging from 0.1% or less in Australia, India, Indonesia, Ireland and South Africa to 0.8% or more in Denmark, Iceland, Israel, the Russian Federation and Spain.

The bottom line is that even in these times of fiscal consolidation and crisis, sufficient public funding should continue to be dedicated to early childhood programmes. This would help not only to improve children’s outcomes, social mobility from generation to generation and long-term efficiency gains for society, but also reduce poverty and protect the most vulnerable.

For more information
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators: 
On the OECD’s Indicators of Education Systems (INES) programme, visit:
INES Programme overview brochure
Chart source: OECD.  Argentian and Indonesia: UNESCO Institute for Statistics (World Indicators Programme).  Table C2.1.  See Annex 3 for notes (

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