Can pre-primary education help solve the learning crisis in Africa?

Written on 02 Feb 16 by Aglaia Zafeirakou
Literacy and reading
Emergency and refugee education


Around the world, 250 million children worldwide cannot read, write or do basic math, 130 million of whom are in school.

The original post was published on Global Partnership for Education website. It is published on the IIEP Learning Portal with their permission.

Globally, the Education for All goals adopted in 2000 and coming to an end this year have enabled developing countries to achieve remarkable progress. Thanks to the clear focus that the goals provided, millions more children now have access to basic education (EFA GMR 2015).

Yet access is not sufficient, and a learning crisis is evident, especially among the poorest and most vulnerable students. Around the world, 250 million children worldwide cannot read, write or do basic math, 130 million of whom are in school. (EFA GMR 2014).

Percentage of children unable to read a single word at baseline (grade 2). USAID 2015
Percentage of children unable to read a single word at baseline (grade 2). USAID 2015


Responding to this alarming situation, the global community at the World Education Forum in Korea last May set a new target for education for the next 15 years: Ensure inclusive and equitable, quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

The Sustainable Development Goal for education to be approved at the end of the month by the United Nations clearly states that pre-primary education will be one of the strategic objectives to address the learning crisis in an equitable way. Countries should:

By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education

Early education is key for learning in later years

The explicit global focus on pre-primary education creates momentum for early learning, supported by growing empirical evidence in all countries, both low and high income.

The evidence is compelling:

  • Students with preschool experience in most cases demonstrate higher scores on literacy, vocabulary, mathematics, or quantitative reasoning than non-attenders.
  • Good quality pre-primary education results in cost-savings and increased efficiency in primary education: higher attendance and achievement, lower repetition and drop-out rates, less remedial and special education.
  • Youth who participated in early childhood education tend to perform better in the PISA assessment at age 15 than youth who did not, after controlling for socioeconomic background (OECD 2010).

The crucial role of early education is an incentive to convince development partners, including ministries of education and finance, to invest more in pre-school, especially in situation of economic crisis (Shaeffer, 2015).

Positive trends in pre-primary education in sub-Saharan Africa

In 2015, field evidence supports the argument that the pre-primary and early childhood development services are ready to take off in sub-Saharan Africa in a context of progress in access, growing inequalities and quality challenges.

In Africa, pre-primary enrollment rose by almost two and half times between 1999 and 2015, an 84% increase. But a low starting point and demographic expansion mean that most countries in the region still have very low rates of pre-primary schooling: over 80% of young children in Sub-Saharan Africa have no access to these programs.

There is some promising progress: seven countries have achieved a gross enrollment rate of 80% or more in pre-primary education: Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Mauritius, Angola, Cape Verde, the Seychelles and South Africa.

But only 2% of children are enrolled in Mali, Burkina Faso or Somalia.

Growing demand for pre-school

However we should remain optimistic because there is a growing demand for pre-school services in Africa.

Parents and communities representing the full spectrum of socio-economic status, living in slums, cities or villages, demand pre-primary opportunities for their children.

The strong evidence for that demand is the large cohort of under-age enrollments in grade 1 in several African countries. Another sign is the rapid increase of education services, including pre-primary, provided by the private sector and charity organizations.

Public vs. non-public enrollment in pre-primary education (source: UIS)
Public vs. non-public enrollment in pre-primary education (source: UIS)

On average in Sub-Saharan Africa, 60% of children in pre-primary schools attend programs run by private operators (EFA GMR 2015).

Three countries lead the way for expanding pre-school education

Ghana is a good example of an explicit government policy to rapidly expand access to pre-primary education: after abolishing fees, Ghana has seen major growth in pre-school participation. The supply and demand for pre-primary services has created greater institutional capacity in the country but sufficient quality and universal access are not yet achieved.

In Kenya and Tanzania, the policy has been to include pre-primary education in the basic education cycle: laws now require pre-primary sections to be attached to all primary schools, but fees are being charged in both countries.

Achieving the 2030 education goals in Africa by supporting pre-school education

A boost in pre-primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa can happen through tangible progress in three areas: policies/knowledge, financing, and networks.

  1. Good policies based on up-to-date knowledge and evidence of what works in the African context for affordable, equitable pre-primary services should be integrated in education action plans and implemented properly.
  2. Both domestic and international financing initiatives should address the financial gap and promote innovative models of equitable distribution of resources.
  3. Technical knowledge must be strengthened and shared. African platforms and networks have been created to boost pre-primary education. One example is the Inter-country Quality Node (ICQN)  for early childhood development, launched by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and hosted by Mauritius. Another is the Early Childhood Development Virtual University (ECDVU). These networks must strengthen the connections with policy makers, and, together with technical workshops, should promote the delivery of pre-primary education for all towards the 2030 education goals.

The new sustainable development goal for education will show clear progress in Sub-Saharan Africa if countries and development partners respond urgently to the growing demand for pre-primary education.

Bookmark this