Published on Let's Talk Development

Pandemic priorities: Where is early childhood education on national policy agendas?

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Students listen to class lessons at Beajah Public School, in Beajah, Liberia. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank Students listen to class lessons at Beajah Public School, in Beajah, Liberia. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

As the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a worldwide wave of school closures beginning in March 2020, advances in early childhood education (ECE) were among the most threatened of the world’s hard-won gains in education.  Due to their stage of development, learners in early childhood (defined most expansively from ages 0 to 8) may be less able than older children to engage in remote learning, to cope with lost routines and opportunities for social and emotional development, and to comply with health and safety measures as schools seek to reopen safely. A World Bank report published early in the pandemic warned that a “crisis-driven weakening of early childhood development and foundational learning...will mean lower learning trajectories for a whole generation.”

To better understand how countries grappling with this unprecedented disruption prioritized -- or not – early learning, we analyze ECE policy in the context of COVID-19. Our new paper builds on our previous work (also available here) showing that despite a strong rhetorical commitment to ECE from global actors and national governments, ECE is comparatively neglected by policymakers. In both papers we adapt a framework developed by global health researchers and draw on fieldwork conducted in Ethiopia, Jamaica, Liberia, Pakistan, Tanzania under the Early Learning Partnership (ELP) systems research program. The first paper found that although all focus countries have taken recent steps to expand ECE provision, the conditions to support sustained political and fiscal commitment to ECE are partially present at best.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult for ECE to garner attention compared with pre-pandemic times. Country surveys show that learners in ECE were the least likely to be provided distance education, attend school in person after reopening, and benefit from assessments and remedial measures to address learning losses. In countries that we researched, few national Emergency Response Plans accorded more than minimal attention to young children and ECE provision. ECE suffered from a lack of high-level champions, a fragmented response by development partners and civil society, and a dearth of evidence about how to deliver effective distance learning for young children and reopen preschools safely. Across the board, countries prioritized children preparing for high-stakes examinations in their planning for remote learning and school reopening.

We found a few mitigating factors specific to some countries. In Jamaica, the presence of a strong coordinating entity – the Early Childhood Commission - was helpful for maintaining policy attention to ECE. Liberia drew on its recent experience from its Ebola crisis to mobilize key stakeholders quickly when COVID hit. ECE programs were included in Liberia’s Teaching by Radio program even if was difficult to reach children in rural areas.

On balance, however, the policy environment became even less favorable to ECE in the era of COVID-19. These factors risk undermining previous investments by governments and their partners to expand ECE access and quality. Early childhood learners in low- and middle-income countries lost an average of 106 days of instruction in 2020. However, the strong evidence for the importance of quality ECE for lifelong human capital development remains unchanged, as do international commitments to ECE such as Sustainable Development Goal 4.2. As schools reopen and education systems recover, global and national actors should redouble their efforts to strengthen prioritization of ECE and apply lessons from the pandemic to protect ECE during future crises.

The authors gratefully acknowledge funding support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) for this research.


Shawn Powers

Economist, World Bank Education Global Practice

Michelle Neuman

Lecturer in educational practice at the University of Pennsylvania

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