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Multi-sectoral returns on investment in the early years


There is compelling evidence that shows the multiplicity of benefits of investing in the early years.

Early childhood and maternal health and nutrition reinforces educational prospects

Research shows that educational prospects and performance are compromised by the negative impact of hunger, stunting, wasting and anemia, i.e. causes of malnutrition and ill-health. Children with experience of early malnutrition were likely to have lower scores in tests assessing cognitive function, psychomotor development, fine motor skills, activity levels and attention span. Best child outcomes are obtained from programmes that combine nutrition and stimulation components, as shown in the 1991 Jamaica study that investigates the effects of intervention integrating nutritional supplementation with stimulation for stunted children from a poor population group.

ECCE improves attendance and performance at primary and beyond

Attendance in an ECCE programme can enhance social and emotional development and well-being, language and basic cognitive skills development, and physical and motor development. ECCE can improve school readiness, and nurture positive self-image and learning dispositions (e.g. motivation to learn and discover). It makes enrolment in the first grade of primary education more likely, and increases retention, completion and achievement. Experience of preschool participation in the United Kingdom was shown to be responsible for improved intellectual development, independence, concentration and sociability in the initial three years of primary school. The 33-African-country-research showed that the absence of preschool experience correlated with a repetition rate of 25% and a completion rate of 50% or less in primary school. Children participated in the Turkish Early Enrichment Project, which combined parental skills improvement and pre-schooling, in low-income areas demonstrated better school achievement, higher university attendance and more elevated occupational status compared to non-participating children.

Early intervention can reduce social inequalities

Research supports that ECCE can compensate for disadvantage and vulnerability, regardless of underlying factors such as poverty, gender, race/ethnicity, caste or religion. ECCE helps level the playing field for disadvantaged children as they enter primary school, empowering them to be confident and successful in later education and employment. The North Carolina Abecedarian study in the United States showed that at risk children having poor parents with low IQ levels were able to do as well as their more affluent peers after having participated in an intensive ECCE programme. Participation in an intensive early learning programme enabled poor children to obtain equal test scores as middle-class children attending a traditional preschool programme. ECCE has also been shown to enhance gender equality among young children as well as between women and men.

Investing in ECCE pays off

Investment in ECCE programmes have high rates of return. Cost-benefit research has shown that savings are made by reducing dropout, repetition and special education placements for both governments and families. It has also demonstrated that children with quality ECCE experience tend to advance to higher education, obtain employment, have higher earnings as well as savings, provide higher contributions to social security, and are less likely to be on public assistance and commit crimes. The Perry Preschool study analysing a sample of Afro-American children estimated the cost/benefit ratio of 1:7 at age 27 or 1:16 through age 40. In Bolivia, a home-based early development and nutrition programme showed cost/benefit ratios between 1:2.4 and 1:3.1. The Nobel-winning economist James Heckman demonstrated that investment returns in ECCE are greater than those of other areas of education.

Source: UNESCO. 2010. Conference concept paper: World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education. Paris: Author

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