SEATTLE, Washington — Early childhood education is an essential component of development, helping children form cognitive and language skills as well as social and emotional competency. In Africa, slightly more than one-quarter of children between the ages of three and five attend some form of early childhood education. Increasing the percentage of those who have access to early childhood education in Africa could help reduce socioeconomic gaps in education and help these children eventually make their way out of poverty.
Poverty and Early Childhood Education
Because more than 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before the age of five, cognitive stimulation during the first few years of life is essential to building a foundation for successful schooling. The poor benefit the most from preschool, as it improves their development and increases their potential for success in primary and secondary school, giving them a greater chance of escaping poverty.
According to UNICEF, “investing in early childhood education can be a powerful way to reduce gaps that often put children with low social and economic status at a disadvantage.” Globally, however, early childhood education is just another advantage that the rich have over the poor. Children from the richest 20 percent of the population are the most likely to attend preschool.
Africa has one of the lowest rates of early childhood education in the world with only 27 percent of children in sub-Saharan, West and Central Africa attending preschool. Only the Middle East and North Africa have a lower rate at 26 percent. In contrast, 37 percent of children in East Asia and the Pacific and 61 percent of children in Latin America and the Caribbean attend preschool.
The Africa Early Childhood Network
Increasing access to early childhood education in Africa is an important step, and many nations face different challenges in trying to improve their programming. Various organizations and governments are working to overcome these difficulties. The Africa Early Childhood Network (AfECN) has been working since 2015 to help improve early childhood education in Africa.
AfECN recognizes that more than just education contributes to development, so it also works to strengthen other areas of development including nutrition and childcare. By 2020, it is estimated that 45 percent of all malnourished children will be in Africa. For these children’s brains to develop properly, AfECN knows they also need proper nourishment.
Early Childhood Education in Kenya
Kenya’s early childhood education greatly exceeds regional averages with 53.3 percent of Kenyan children enrolled in pre-primary education as of 2015. In part this stems from a long history of early childhood education, beginning in 1942 for European children. Shortly after, African children were able to attend these schools as well. After becoming independent in 1963, more efforts were made to increase access to early childhood education; as a result, enrollment has steadily grown over the decades.
With this well-established programming moving forward, organizations in Kenya are mainly focused on increasing coordination between schools and improving curriculums. AfECN established a network in Kenya in 2015 that consists of several institutes and organizations, including World Vision Kenya, International Child Resource Institute and PATH.
Early Childhood Education in Zimbabwe
In 2015, 31.78 percent of children in Zimbabwe were enrolled in pre-primary education, which also exceeded the average for early childhood education in Africa. Initially, early childhood education was only available in urban areas; however, following independence in 1980, this expanded as the government opened preschools in urban and rural areas to increase access.
In 2012, the Zimbabwe Network of Early Childhood Development Actors (ZINECDA) was created to increase services and infrastructure. Key achievements include bringing the government and funders together to discuss increased programming and the funds to run the programs as well as the development of a manual to guide new preschools.
Improvements are still underway, and the government is working with NGOs, UNICEF, Save the Children and Plan International to construct facilities and train teachers. In an effort to increase the number of early childhood education teachers available, the government began requiring that all education colleges offer an early childhood education program.
Early Childhood Education in Tanzania
Well below the regional average, Tanzania’s pre-primary education enrollment rate was among the lowest on the continent with only 6.2 percent. Early childhood education in Tanzania began later than in Zimbabwe and Kenya, first forming in the 1980s. One of the most significant problems facing such programming in Tanzania was a lack of formal curriculum, which created great disparities between different schools. Within the last decade, this problem has begun to decrease as more teachers are studying early childhood education at a university. This has helped to streamline the curriculum and criteria in schools.
Additionally, the Tanzania Early Childhood Development Network (TECDEN) was established in 2004. It is comprised of 238 organizations grouped into 18 regional chapters. This network seeks to promote early childhood education as well as other early childhood development programs throughout the nation, coordinating fundraising and the construction of schools. As of 2015, the pre-primary enrollment rate was 77 percent.
With continued efforts, organizations, networks and governments should be able to overcome the challenges preventing the growth of early childhood education programs across the continent. These programs will help improve access to education for low-income children. As early childhood education in Africa continues to improve, hopefully, poverty rates will begin to drop.