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Public and private early childhood education in sub-Saharan Africa

Tue, April 16, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Pacific Concourse (Level -1), Pacific K

Group Submission Type: Formal Panel Session


Despite large developmental benefits for children (Currie & Thomas, 1999; Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2001; Shafiq, Devercelli, & Valerio, 2018) and high rates of return to investments (Heckman & Masterov, 2007), early childhood education (ECE) has historically been neglected in many low-income countries. More recently, however, greater emphasis is being placed on raising access to high quality ECE services (Gove, 2017), in part as a result of the global Education for All (EFA) movement, but particularly with the advent of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets, which have placed early childhood development more squarely within international policy frameworks. Specifically, SDG Target 4.2 commits countries to ‘ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education’ by the year 2030.

The 2017/18 Global Education Monitoring Report found that 69% of children worldwide are currently participating in pre-primary schooling; however the participation rate is only 43% across low-income countries, with large disparities across countries. This marks a sharp contrast to the rates of participation at higher levels of the education system (81% primary and 62% secondary net enrollment across low-income countries)
(UNESCO, 2018). And similar to trends at the primary and secondary levels, evidence suggests that participation in pre-primary education is strongly determined by factors such as student wealth, location, gender, and ethnicity (UNESCO World Inequality Database on Education, 2017). Additionally, indications suggest that these same inequalities are found in student cognitive and non-cognitive abilities at the early childhood level (UNESCO, 2018). Data from the UWEZO assessment in Tanzania show big gaps in student achievement by household location and wealth at the end of pre-primary school. Given these existing challenges within early childhood education in LMICs, progression towards SDG 4.2 will require close attention to issues of equity and quality as countries continue to expand their ECE services by 2030.

The role of non-state actors in education is an issue that has received a large amount of attention within the global education research, policy, and civil-society communities. Such research has been building for at least the past two decades, and there exists a strong body of evidence on issues such as the quality of services, determinants of school choice, costs of attendance, and social equity implications, among others. However, when looking at the early childhood literature, there is almost no existing research on the role of non-state actors. There are some studies on topics such as low-fee private schools, which happen to give cursory attention to ECE within a paragraph or two of a larger study of private primary and secondary schooling (Ohara, 2012; Rose, 2002; Siaplay & Werker, 2013; Srivastava & Walford, 2016; Tooley & Dixon, 2006). An even smaller number of studies specifically collect data on pre-primary schools, as part of their larger research on private primary and secondary schools (Baum, Abdul-Hamid, & Wesley, 2018; Härmä, 2016; Urwick, 2002), or capture both public and private operators in their general research on early childhood education (Bidwell & Watine, 2014).

This type of research is clearly in its infancy, with very few existing studies on the explicit intersection of non-state actors and early childhood education. This marks a substantial oversight on the part of the research and policy communities, given the size of private markets for ECE across the world (as compared to primary and secondary education levels); non-state providers are educating 41% of all pre-primary students across world regions, compared to 14% and 19% at the primary and secondary levels, respectively. Moreover, these figures refer only to the share of students enrolled in recognized and registered private schools. And given what we currently know about the size of unofficial schooling markets in many low-income countries (Baum, Cooper, & Lusk-Stover, 2018), it is likely that these numbers provide only a lower-bound on the share of students enrolled in private schools.

During the SDG period, countries will be actively pursuing expansion of their early childhood education systems, as current enrollments at this stage are far behind those at the primary and secondary levels. And recognizing the magnitude of private participation in a region such as Sub-Saharan Africa, it is critical that we seek to expand the research on the impacts and contributions of non-state actors at the ECE level. This panel will present new evidence on the contributions of the private sector to ECE within an African context (with particular emphasis on Liberia and Kenya).

Additionally, the panel will present and discuss new research investigating the quality of current ECE practices within Sub-Saharan Africa. Notwithstanding the strong evidence on the benefits of early childhood investments, the evidence on the quality of services within the region is still developing. Overall, the current state of research on early childhood learning programs emphasizes the importance of quality of center-based services (Naudeau et al. 2011; Denboba et al. 2014); however, the theoretical and conceptual models seem to be less advanced than the frameworks explaining quality at the primary and secondary levels. This panel provides new findings on quality of classroom environments (in Nairobi), and the current status of children’s executive function skills (in Liberia) for the purposes of expanding current knowledge on ECE quality within the region.

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