Toddlers’ education at stake as pre-schools eat up 20pc of family income

Kenya is among countries where pre-primary education takes at least 20 per cent of a family’s annual income, forcing many parents to forego this critical investment at the expense of children’s development.

A new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), shows that more than half of pre-primary-age (between three and six) children are not enrolled in kindergartens yet more than 85 per cent of brain development happens at this stage.

“This failure limits children’s futures by denying them opportunities to reach their full potential, and it deepens inequities in later learning,” warns Unicef in the report.

“It also limits their societies’ futures, robbing countries of the human capital and along with it, the opportunity to reduce inequalities and contribute to peaceful and prosperous futures.”

The study titled: “A world ready to learn: Prioritising quality early childhood education”, says the government has made little investment in promoting early childhood education, forcing parents to shoulder most of the burden.

For instance, Unicef notes that of the three to six-year-old children in Mukuru slum in Nairobi who were enrolled in pre-school, 94 per cent were attending informal private schools — placing a high financial burden on their families.

“Poor families are also at risk of receiving low quality services from private schools—families in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria spent approximately 20 per cent of GDP per capita on preschool-related expenditures annually,” says the report.

“The burden on household spending is much greater at the pre-primary level than at other levels of education across countries.”

This is made worse by other expenses such as uniform, transport, trips and snacks that are becoming almost compulsory in many private pre-schools.

In some instances, households pay fees and also provide in-kind support and voluntary contributions. Unicef warns that this is burdensome and leads to inequitable delivery and low quality.

The Kenyan government has put more focus on primary education, making it free and also subsidising secondary school education.

But it warns that neglecting pre-school education could lessen the impact of this progress.

It says lack of exposure to pre-school denies children the opportunity to build foundations of learning and develop skills that can help them succeed in school and in the course of their lives.

“Children who fall behind at a young age often never catch up with their peers, perpetuating cycles of under-achievement and high dropout rates that continue to harm vulnerable children into their youth,” the report cautions.

Further, Unicef says that when children attend pre-primary schools, their mothers have the opportunity to work and increase earnings, facilitating the upward mobility of two generations.

A World Bank study in Indonesia also found that access to public pre-school for two hours a day led to a 13.3 per cent increase in women’s participation in the workforce.

Despite the significance of pre-schooling, it is deeply underfunded by governments and donors, relative to other education levels, especially in low-and middle income countries like Kenya.

“The current budgetary priorities of most governments fail to reflect the value of pre-primary education, which is often seen as being in competition for funding with other levels of education,” notes Unicef.

The report shows that Kenya’s funding gap at about 75 per cent with expenditure on pre-primary education as a percentage of total government education spending being below 1.9 per cent compared to Tanzania’s five to seven per cent.

Unicef’s recommendation is that at least 10 per cent of total education budget should fund pre-primary education.

Kenya had 41,779 pre-schools yet about 1.3 million toddlers enroll each year, according to data from 2018 Economic Survey by Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Kenya has only 41 public pre-school training colleges against 235 that are privately owned.

The report says underinvestment in pre-primary education by the public sector means that households have had to assume a large proportion of the costs of their children’s attendance.

In Kenya, the County Early Childhood Education Bill, passed in 2014, gave the devolved units the responsibility of delivering early childhood education services. But the national government provided insufficient resources for the intended services.

In Nairobi City County, for example, Unicef says a lack of funding limited public pre-school attendance to only 12,000 children out of more than 250,000 who were eligible in 2014.

“In addition, there was some confusion around responsibilities for various aspects of service delivery— for example, whether the central government continues to be responsible for hiring and managing teachers,” observes the report.

A pilot study in Uganda showed that 52 per cent of the children who did not attend pre-primary repeated first grade, compared with only 23 per cent of children who had pre-primary experience.

Countries could potentially afford to expand pre-primary education using the resources that are currently being wasted on repetition and over-enrolment in early grades, according to Unicef.

“The excessive repetition leads to substantial system inefficiencies and wastage, with estimated costs for some countries of 1.2 extra years of education per child and an estimated 5–10 per cent of the education budget wasted”.

Education is a top priority goal for most Kenyans regardless of financial status, with 28.9 per cent of the poor chasing it, according to The 2019 Financial Access Household survey.

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