One, two, three star! Pre-school attendance and numeracy skills development

11 May, 2017

The potential of quality early childhood care and education to transform childrens’ lives is now widely recognised in research, in policy and in service delivery. Most significantly at a global level, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 4.2 states that by 2030 countries should: ‘ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education’.

In 2005, when the Young Lives younger cohort were in pre-school, Ethiopia’s pre-school system was still emerging and dominated by private kindergartens for urban families.

Conversely, India already had a long-standing public pre-school system, but perceived quality weaknesses contributed to an increasing growth in a largely unregulated private pre-school sector.

Similarly, Peru also had a public pre-school system, but with the complexity of two distinct types of pre-school of different quality (CEI and PRONOEI). It also had a significant private pre-school sector for better-off families, often seen as an entry point into better quality private schools.

Finally, Vietnam had a well-established public pre-school education system, integrated within the school system, and generally accessible, except to the most disadvantaged and marginalized minority groups.

According to Young Lives data, in 2006 pre-school attendance was almost universal for our sample in Vietnam (91 percent), Peru (89 percent) and the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in India (87 percent) but very limited in Ethiopia (25 percent), and most of those children attended private pre-schools. In all countries, pre-school attendance was more common in urban areas and among wealthier households.

A forthcoming report by my colleagues and me commissioned by the World Bank documents the relationship between pre-school attendance and numeracy skills development over time, as measured at the age of 5, 8 and 12. While causal relationship cannot convincingly be established within the confines of the report, we provide suggestive evidence on the positive role of pre-school for skills development, particularly in Vietnam and in Ethiopia, respectively the country with the highest and the lowest pre-school enrolment.

As the figure below shows, the gaps in numeracy performance between pre-school attenders and non-attenders are significant in all countries at all ages (with the exception of India at the age of 5). However, the magnitude of the gap varies significantly across countries. In fact, at the age of 5, the gap in maths scores between attenders and non-attenders was less than 4 percent in Peru and India and about 15 percent or more in Vietnam and Ethiopia; at the age of 8 and 12 the gap varies between 4 percent or less in India and 20 percent or more in Ethiopia.

Figure 1. Gap in maths score between pre-school attenders and non-attenders at the age of 5, 8 and 12 (% of correct answers)

Does the attenders-non-attenders gap in numeracy skills increase as children grow older?

The single most striking result that emerges from the analysis of the learning trajectories of attenders and non-attenders is the substantial difference in learning progress in Ethiopia. The first figure below presents the non-parametric plots for numeracy achievement at the age of 8 comparing attenders and non-attenders with the same numeracy skills at the age of 5. Similarly, the second figure below displays the extent to which children who attended preschool perform better at the age of 12 than non-attenders with the same numeracy skills at the age of 8.

While this difference is more noteworthy in the initial years of primary, it is still significant in the years that correspond to the second cycle of primary.

At the age of 8, attenders have better numeracy skills than non-attenders with the same skills at the age of 5. Similarly children who attended pre-school performed significantly better in the mathematics test at the age of 12 than those who did not and had scored similarly at the age of 8.

Figure 2. Numeracy learning progress between the ages of 5 and 8, the ages of 8 and 12

The most important caveat to the analyses to this point is that the results cannot be interpreted causally, mainly because of self-selection problems arising from the non-random assignment into pre-school. These graphs do not tell us if any further divergence is only caused by amplification of initial gaps or through other channels in achievement production. In the attempt to unpack the gap in numeracy skills found, we explored the role of human capital endowment at birth, home-inputs, school-inputs and common characteristics at community level at different ages in a multivariate setting.

In Ethiopia the positive association between pre-school attendance and numeracy skills remain robust and significantly different from zero regardless of the specification used. Children who attended pre-school score between 5 and 17 percent more correct answers at the age of 5 and between 6 and 23 percent more correct answers at the age of 8 than non-attenders. At the age of 12 the positive correlation is less strong and fades out when controlling for the lagged math scores.

Young Lives data tell us that gaps in achievements already exist by the time children attend primary school and those children lagging behind at an early age are more likely to be disadvantaged in the future. Good quality and free early education programmes targeting the most vulnerable might indeed compensate for initial inequalities, guarantee equal opportunities to every child, and go some way to improve efficiency and effectiveness of primary education by improving school readiness.

Pre-school Education and Skills Development in Peru, Vietnam, Ethiopia and India:  Evidence from Young Lives, by Marta Favara, Martin Woodhead, Juan Francisco Castro, Grace Chang, Patricia Espinoza in forthcoming World Bank publication, 2017.                                                                         

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About the author(s)
Marta Favara
Deputy Director, Young Lives at Work, and Senior Research Officer, Young Lives