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World Bank turns spotlight on quality early learning to improve children’s outcomes

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Published: 20 May 2022

According to the World Bank’s latest publication, investment in quality early-years education will ensure children succeed in school and beyond and help build more equitable and prosperous societies

World Bank: An estimated 53% of children from low and middle-income countries today, are deemed to be ‘learning poor’. Photo by Tina Floersch on Unsplash

In brief

  • The World Bank’s ‘Quality Early Learning: Nurturing Children’s Potential’ book aims to improve understanding of the science of early learning
  • An estimated 53% of children from low and middle-income countries today, are deemed to be ‘learning poor’
  • The book calls for investment in quality early childhood education to be integral to national post-COVID-19 recovery plans across the globe
  • Education Outcomes Fund describes the book as a “significant and timely publication for a sector that urgently needs more attention”

The World Bank published ‘Quality Early Learning: Nurturing Children’s Potential’ this week to improve understanding of the science of early learning and offer practical advice on how to deliver quality early childhood education (ECE). 

According to the World Bank, learning poverty – defined as being unable to read and understand a short text by the age of 10 – is predicted to rise above 70%, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with low-income countries hit the hardest. An estimated 53% of children from low and middle-income countries today, are currently deemed to be ‘learning poor’. 

The book, which pulls together the views and knowledge of multi-disciplinary experts representing some of the world’s leading academic and philanthropic organisations, highlights the need to invest in and nurture the extensive capacity of children to learn during their early years, in order to develop their cognitive and socioemotional skills, executive function, and motivation which experts say will allow children to succeed at school and beyond.   

In this publication, the World Bank is calling for investments in quality ECE to be integral to national post-COVID-19 recovery plans across the globe.

Magdalena Bendini, senior education economist and co-editor of the book, told Impact Investor that although quality ECE was imperative to addressing the global learning crisis, it would be difficult to achieve without more and better investments to promote early learning. “We need to be honest that, although investments in ECE have enormous potential, expanding access without investments that ensure quality will not lead to more learning.” 

Bendini said that there was a common misconception that educational services for young children could be provided cheaply because not much experience or expertise was required to be a good ECE teacher and teachers could be hired at a lower cost. “That is wrong,” she added. “Teachers exert enormous influence on children’s development and this should compel us to train and recruit the most talented professionals for ECE.”  

Window of opportunity 

Bendini highlighted that many countries today had a unique window of opportunity to deliver quality ECE while access was still relatively low.  She said: “Getting this right early—both in the early years of children’s lives and in the early years of expanding access to ECE—is a lot easier than fixing problems later.” 

Commenting on the publication of the book, Jared Lee, chief programmes officer at the Education Outcomes Fund (EOF), said: “This is a significant and timely publication, for a sector that urgently needs more attention. The pandemic has delivered the biggest shock to human capital in a generation, and now more than ever we need to double down on long-term investments in the early years, that are crucial to set children up for success in their schooling and in life.” 

Lee agreed that the emphasis should be on quality, particularly in low- and middle-income countries: “We can’t afford to repeat what happened in basic education, where there was this huge focus on getting more children into school, only to see the majority of children who were in school not learning to read and write, because a basic level of quality wasn’t there.  It turns out it’s much easier to get the quality right and then expand access, than the other way around.” 

He said impact investors had a critical role to play particularly in developing and supporting innovative emerging ECE models but he acknowledged that the fragmented nature of the market and the significant role of smaller community-based organisations, made it challenging for impact investors looking to participate in this space at scale.

“There are ways to make it work though. At EOF, we are currently developing a significant pipeline of results-based financing programs with governments around the world.  These will create new opportunities for impact investors to participate, with their returns linked to the quality of ECE provision, and developmental outcomes for children,” he added.   

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