Early Child Education: The Most Important; Yet The Most Neglected

Education is acknowledged largely as a significant tool because it equips students with the functional skills for decent living and generates human capital that can spur economic development. Education has many levels, each of which is essential in its distinctiveness and therefore requires adequate public investment.

In Nigeria, government’s policy design and investment focuses mainly on three levels: primary, secondary and tertiary education. In fact, it is not far-fetched to assume that most Nigerians think these are the only levels of education. Government policy, in part, feeds into this narrative with the division of the education system into structures like 6-5-2-3 or more recently 6-3-3-4, in which only primary, secondary and tertiary education are emphasized.

However, there is a fourth level of education—the Early Childhood Education (ECE) which starts from birth through the pre-school, until the child enters the primary level of education. ECE was officially recognized in Nigeria in the 2013 National Policy on Education, with the introduction of 1-6-3-3-4 system. The additional one year covers ECE and was designed to be free and compulsory, thereby extending basic education from 9 to 10 years. According to National Policy of Education (2013), the goal of the ECE is to facilitate transition from home to school and prepare children for primary level of education.

This belated recognition of ECE has not raised its status in any significant way. As shown in Figure 1a, among the pupils enrolled in Primary 1 to Junior Secondary School in 2015, only 45% have attended pre-school. It is also telling that the pattern of pre-school attendance reflects the typical dimension of exclusion in education in Nigeria. Specifically, about 75% of those that have not attended pre-school are from rural areas, while non-attendance is highest among children from the poorest households (Figure 1b). Overall, this data suggests that the majority of children transit directly from home into primary school. While home and family education is an important component of ECE, attending pre-school could ensure seamless transition to primary education.

Source: Nigeria Education Survey (2015)

Government neglect of ECE is evident due to a lack of specialized regulatory institution for it compared to other levels of education. The running and operation of pre-school centers is entirely situated with private sector and social development centers, with some level of oversight from the state ministries of education.

Despite the National Policy on Education (2013) incorporating the ECE into the basic education framework, the scheme has not been implemented in any state in the country. In fact, while funding for all levels of education is poor in Nigeria, ECE has no funding commitment from any arms of government, except modest allocation that could use for ECE as part of primary education budget. The implication  government’s neglect is that ECE becomes accessible mostly to middle- and high-income earners (Figure 1b), thereby excluding children from poor households.

Figure 2 compares the performance of Primary 1 to JSS students based on attendance of preschool. Performance is defined by the ability to meet minimum competency in numeracy and literacy such ability to read and comprehend and do simple arithmetic. By this estimate, 76% of students that attend pre-school meet the minimum benchmark in numeracy, compared to 37% for those that did not attend. Similarly, 69% of those that attend pre-school are estimated competent in literacy, compared to 33% for that did not.

The difference in performance could come from other factors like parents’ education and income; 11% points and 8% points difference in numeracy and literacy performance based on attendance of pre-school. Hence, it can be deduced that part of the learning crisis observed in Nigeria is due to the neglect of ECE.

Source: Nigeria Education Survey (2015)

A more fundamental concern is the lifelong impact of neglecting ECE. Broad consensus emerging from neuroscience and behavioral research is that the most critical cognitive and non-cognitive skills are developed in the first few years.  For example, Figure 3 shows that children develop vison, hearing and language skills in their first year. Higher cognitive function also peaks in first year, but the overall development process continues until age 14. Similarly, a child’s emotional and physical health and social skills are developed in early years of life and these skills contribute significantly to both success in school and community in the later years. Parents’ role is elemental in this process, however there might be a point that professional care giver skills will be more essential. The literature on ECE mostly recommends gradual transition from home to school or start of formal ECE between age 2 and 3. This means vibrant and quality ECE is a core and prerequisite component of the education system for any country.

Figure 3: Human Developmental Phases

Source: C.A. Nelson (2000)

Economist James Heckman has examined the rate of return on investment in all levels of education from pre-school to tertiary level and post-school training (on the job training). Interestingly, return to preschool is the highest, followed by primary, secondary and tertiary education. This evidence is the basis of the Heckman curve (Figure 4) which illustrates the declining return to each addition level of education after preschool.  By one estimate, a dollar investment on ECE yields 7 dollars in return to society in terms of more productive and healthier workforce and better community and family support (Heckman, Moon and Pinto, 2010[1]).

Heckman curve

Source: James Heckman (2006)

From the foregoing, ECE is arguably the most important level of education. It is therefore crucial that its relevance is recognized through sound policy and institutional frameworks and funding to ensure that Nigeria achieves its ambitious educational goals and broader economic development. The starting point towards improving the relevance and performance of ECE in Nigeria will be for the 36 state governments including Federal Capital Authority Management to implement the NPC (2013), especially the component relating to integration of ECE to basic education framework, increase funding, creating a specialized institution for regulation and agenda setting. Standards and performance of ECE cannot rise above the teaching manpower within education sector; hence there is need for a teacher’s training component to ECE intervention. Lastly, parents play the most crucial role in delivery of quality training for children. The locus of accountability must therefore be given to parents. However, to effectively play this role, more public enlightenment and engagement should be provided to ensure parents understand the importance of ECE and their role in its effective delivery.

[1] Heckman, J. J., Moon, S. H., Pinto, R., Savelyev, P. A., & Yavitz, A. (2010). The Rate of Return to the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. Journal of Public Economics, 94(1-2), 114–128.