Published on Arab Voices

Early childhood education is not a luxury

Also available in: Español

 Arne Hoel l World BankObservers of the educational landscape in the Maghreb countries are often left with the impression that early childhood education is more a luxury than a necessity. While child-care centers, kindergartens, and other preschool institutions are thriving in the big cities, backed by a private sector that is filling the void left by the public education system, the public preschool system continues to be neglected.

In order to understand the importance of early childhood education, the status of universal education in the region needs to be examined a little more closely.

With Morocco recently closing the gap, bringing it on par with Algeria and Tunisia which achieved near-universal primary education in the 1980s, can it be said that the Maghreb countries have finally won the battle against illiteracy and a lack of education?  Far from it. 

While the illiteracy rate among those over age 15 has undoubtedly fallen in recent decades to roughly 20% in Algeria and Tunisia and 30% in Morocco, it is still too high relative to the rate in such countries as Libya (6%), and Jordan and Turkey where illiteracy has been virtually wiped out. This lag in the Maghreb countries is attributable to school dropouts in the early years, which continue to undermine major efforts made by these countries to expand access to education.  A report published recently by the Higher Education Council of Morocco [ Conseil Supérieur de l’éducation du Maroc] estimated that between 2000 and 2012, 1.5 million children dropped out of school before completing primary education. Each year, close to 80,000 young Tunisians drop out of school before completing basic education (middle school level), while 50,000 Algerian youth drop out of primary school.

What is driving millions of young people—often from rural areas or poor households—to drop out of school when they are ill-prepared to face life, find a decent job, and build a future for themselves? The simple truth is that many of them were not adequately prepared for school.  Several recent studies have revealed the importance of engaging young children from a very early age in cognitive, social, and emotional developmental activities. This process begins first with parental engagement—how parents interact with their children through communication, games, and reading, and then continues with their socialization at child-care centers or kindergartens, where qualified staff will help them prepare for more structured learning in primary school.

So, what is happening in our countries? The conclusions of a World Bank report entitled Expanding the opportunities for the next generation-Early Childhood Development in the Middle East and North Africa published in June are enlightening. Fewer than half of Moroccan children under age five and three-quarters of Tunisian children are benefiting from sufficiently stimulating parental engagement for their cognitive and emotional development. Access to early childhood education remains limited and inequitable, and this level of education is generally of poor quality. Enrollment rates for children aged 4-5 years are still relatively low: 58% in Algeria, 63% in Morocco, and 45% in Tunisia, compared to the average rates in Asia (62%), Europe (77%), and Latin America (73%).

There are very few public preschools in Morocco and Tunisia; early childhood education is dominated by the private sector in Tunisia and by the traditional Islamic schools (Kuttab, M’sid) in Morocco. Private education is often inaccessible to poor and low-income households, particularly those in the rural areas, as it is available primarily in the big cities and is not subsidized. Moreover, owing to inadequate oversight, the quality of the services offered at the private child-care centers and kindergartens varies and often falls short of international standards.  

Traditional education also raises quality issues and is not equipped to promote early childhood development. The Algerian experience is noteworthy.  Capitalizing on the drop in the number of primary school children, in 2010 Algeria introduced a preparatory class for five-year olds in public primary schools.

The Maghreb countries are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of early childhood education.  The recognition of its importance must translate into specific measures aimed at providing access to quality universal early childhood education. International experience shows that this requires the application of strict standards in terms of facilities, staff, and programs, as well as the allocation of public resources and subsidies targeting poor and low-income families in particular.

Early childhood education is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Children who are better prepared to learn are more likely to acquire knowledge, know-how, and abilities that will pave the way for them to advance in their studies and succeed in life.


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