In September 2015, the world’s nations adopted a set of “sustainable development goals” to end poverty, protect the planet, and promote the well-being of everyone. Goal 4 is to provide quality education and promote lifelong learning, and governments are called on to “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education…”[1] Uganda’s Early Childhood Development Policy of 2007 states, “learning begins at birth and that whatever experiences a child goes through during these formative years will impact on a child’s learning in later years positively or negatively.” [2]

Early childhood education is important for many reasons, including its impact on children’s ability to learn. The human brain develops rapidly in the first few years of a child’s life, but the pace of development slows as a child ages. That early brain development lays the foundation for future learning. UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2016 report states:

The new research shows that nutrition, health care, and interaction between children and their caregivers can help with brain development in early childhood. Conversation, repeating and connecting words in meaningful contexts, and early exposure to literacy through reading and play are all positively associated with language skills.[3]

Even when children face disadvantages in other areas of their lives (including economic disadvantages), early childhood education can prepare them for greater success when they enter primary school. Pre-primary education also helps children learn respect for others, learn how to cooperate in a group, and develop creativity. In most countries, however, fewer than half of the children attend early childhood education programmes (pre-primary school).[4] In 2011, just 6.6 percent of all 3- to 5-year-olds in Uganda, for example, were officially enrolled in pre-primary school and only 23.4 percent of those enrolled were actually attending.[5]

Studies from around the world demonstrate the advantages pre-primary education gives children, preparing them to succeed in formal schooling and increasing their future education opportunities.

  • A 2009 study in Argentina found attending pre-primary school had many benefits for children once they entered primary school, including higher test scores in math and Spanish, improved attention in the classroom, increased effort in studies, and improved discipline and classroom participation. Children from communities with high poverty levels gained the greatest benefit from pre-primary education.[6]
  • A 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey revealed that in 58 of 65 countries surveyed, 15-year-old students who had attend pre-primary school for at least one year outperformed students who had not.[7]
  • In rural China, 4- and 5-year-olds who had pre-primary education scored 20 percent higher on primary school readiness tests than children without pre-primary education.[8]


Early childhood education has benefits beyond learning, including social benefits, improved child well-being, poverty reduction, higher female participation in the labour market, gender equality, and better social and economic development for the society and nation. Several studies demonstrate improved future economic outcomes for children who have had pre-primary education.[9]

  • In Jamaica, a long-term study found early childhood stimulation resulted in a 42 percent increase in earnings as adults.[10]
  • Turkey’s early childhood education programme in the 1980s (which included pre-primary school) focused on children from low-income migrant families. Twenty years later, children who participated in the programme had higher educational attainment and occupational status than those who did not participate.[11]
  • In Uganda, money invested in pre-primary schooling “pays back” 60% more, in terms of better health, higher income as children become adults, improved productivity, and so on.[12]


When parents and guardians provide their children with the opportunity to participate in pre-primary education, they make an investment in children’s future achievements in school, their social development and health, their economic opportunities as adults, and the improvement of the society in which they live.



[1] United Nations (2015), “Goal 4: Ensure Inclusive and Quality Education for All and Promote Lifelong Learning.” [Online], available from: (accessed 25 August 2016).

[2] United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Uganda (2013), “Early Childhood Development: A Solid Investment in Uganda’s Future.” Research Briefing, July. [Online]. available from: (accessed 25 August 2016).

[3] UNICEF (2016), The State of the World’s Children 2016: A Fair Chance for Every Child.  New York: UNICEF. [Online], available from: (accessed 25 August 2016), p.50.

[4] UNICEF (2014), Early Childhood Development: A Statistical Snapshot – Building Better Brains and Sustainable Outcomes for Children. New York: UNICEF, September, p.7. Cited in UNICEF (2016), p.43.

[5] UNICEF Uganda (2013).

[6] Berlinski, S., Galiani, S. and Gertler, P. (2009), “The Effect of Pre-Primary Education on Primary School Performance.” Journal of Public Economics 93 (1-2), pp.219-234, section 4.5 and section 6. Cited in UNICEF (2016), p.56.

[7] Johnston, A. (2012), “How Pre-school Can Transform Children’s Chances.” Global Education Monitoring Report World Education Blog. [Online], available from: (accessed 25 August 2016).

[8] Johnston, A. (2012).

[9] Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) (no date), “Early Childhood Education and Care.” (Online), available from: (accessed 25 August 2016).

[10] Gertler, P. et al. (2013), “Labor Market Returns to Early Childhood Stimulation: A 20-year Follow Up to an Experimental Intervention in Jamaica.” Policy Research Working Paper no. 6529, Washington, DC: World Bank, July, p.2. Cited in UNICEF (2016), p.42.

[11] Johnston, A. (2012).

[12] UNICEF Uganda (2013).

Photo copyright: Marilyn Nieves, iStock

2 thoughts on “Transforming Children’s Chances through Pre-Primary Education

    1. Thank you for your encouraging comment, Jeremiah. I find it interesting that even in Canada, the value of early childhood education is sometimes overlooked and people consider pre-primary school as “just” an opportunity for children to play together. While play has value, the benefits of pre-primary education are far-reaching. Perhaps governments could do a better job educating parents about these benefits for their children.

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