World is off track on hitting early years target

A mentor helps a young child with reading in Timor-Leste. © UNICEF/UNI578724/Ian Smith

The first global report on early childhood care and education reveals the challenges and solutions, which include investing 10% of education budgets to the youngest children.


Every young child needs quality care and pre-primary education to fulfil their potential. But the world is off track on turning that goal into a reality by 2030.

The scale of the learning crisis is revealed in the first global report on early childhood care and education from UNESCO and UNICEF.

It shows that, without urgent action, 37% of the world’s children – more than 300 million – will not have minimum reading proficiency by 2030. Only 46 of 194 countries ensure free pre-primary education and six million extra teachers are needed to help those children who are missing out.

The early years are drastically under-funded. The report says it’s crucial that governments spend at least 10% of their education budgets on childcare and pre-primary education – a target Theirworld has been pushing for several years. We also recently launched a petition demanding leaders commit $1 billion in new funding.

At the report’s launch in Paris, Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, said: “Investing in our youngest children brings the greatest returns, both socially and economically. It is the best investment a country can make. The price of inaction can be very high, as our work shows.”

Ben Hewitt, Theirworld’s Senior Campaigns Advisor, was also at the launch. He said: “This new report provides vital data which underpins our campaigning efforts around the world. We know that world leaders recognise the importance of the early years. But now they can see clearly see the investment and policy action required to transform the future for the next generation.”

What are the commitments on early years?

Launched in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals are a set of global targets to be achieved by 2030. Target 4.2 committed countries to ensure all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education.

In 2022, 155 countries made further commitments at the World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. They promised to ensure every child gets at least one year of free, compulsory pre-primary education and to work towards allocating at least 10% of education budgets to the early years. The 10% investment is a key component of the Act For Early Years campaign, launched by Theirworld in 2022.

The conference also committed to produce an annual report, offering new findings and key recommendations. So UNESCO and UNICEF produced the new report, The Right to a Strong Foundation, to offer insights into global and regional ECCE trends.

So what does the report say?

Basically, our youngest children are not receiving the early care and learning opportunities they need to reach their full potential.

The under-fives, especially the most disadvantaged and marginalised, need urgent help to access the building blocks needed for school readiness and lifelong success. Almost 60% of children in low-income countries do not have access to early care and learning opportunities.

UNESCO and UNICEF say there is an urgent need for a renewed focus and a comprehensive response.

Any other statistics that demonstrate the challenges?

Here are some more key findings from the report:

  • Many children, particularly the most disadvantaged, are taught by underqualified teachers. In low-income countries, only 57% of pre-primary teachers have received the minimum required training.
  • Global spending on early education is only 0.4% of Gross Domestic Product.
  • Development aid for one year of pre-primary education increased by 40% from 2021 to 2022 – but still only accounts for 1.7% of total education aid.
  • Children with disabilities are 25% less likely to attend early childhood education.
  • Only 4% of the poorest children have books at home and only 46% have playthings at home.
  • 83% of children aged three to five who are in free pre-primary education are developmentally on track – compared to 67% in countries who don’t have this access.

What does the report recommend?

Nine specific actions – including promoting ECCE for school readiness, prioritising vulnerable children and supporting parents and caregivers. It says governments must invest more in recruiting and training ECCE teachers and staff.

The report reaffirms the call for countries to spend at least 10% of their education budgets on pre-primary education. And it adds: “Immediate attention is needed from the international community, development partners and governments to explore every possible scenario to increase public expenditure dedicated to ECCE.”

Any specific progress to report?

The report says: “Despite rising global awareness and commitments, progress towards universal quality early childhood care and education by 2030 remains timid.”

But UNESCO’s Stefania Giannini said efforts to get early childhood education at the top of the global agenda are paying off. Since the 2022 Transforming Education Summit in New York, 95% of countries have reported action on ECCE – up from 40% who made initial national commitments.