Early childhood education: Costs, quality and financing

Early childhood education (ECE) is a key lever for improving children’s well-being and learning outcomes - and to reduce inequalities. This research by IIEP-UNESCO addresses a topic that has not been extensively explored at the international level: cost-effectiveness, quality, and funding analysis of preschool models. The programme aims to better integrate the specificities of ECE in the development of education sector plans.

Despite the clear benefits of schooling for 3-5-year-olds and states’ growing interest in this question, ECE remains dramatically underfunded. Low-income countries devote an average of less than 2% of their national education budget to it; international aid to education is also around 2%.

As a direct consequence, only one out of every five pre-primary age children has access to pre-primary education. Encouraging financing of quality pre-school services is therefore crucial to help all pupils get the best start to their education and to improve school-readiness for primary school.

This research project, with its original approach, aims to link the effectiveness of pre-school models with their cost and quality through the example of the Gambia.


Why research pre-primary school models?

Evaluating the overall cost and financing of early childhood education services is a particularly complex task. While some attempts have been made, they remain limited to a few, mainly in high-income countries. Lack of understanding and factual data on these questions particularly those linked to the cost-effectiveness and quality of preschool models - has been recognised as a major impediment for proper integration of ECE in education sector plans. Therefore, the financial resources that have been mobilised are insufficient in low- and middle-income countries, slowing down the expansion of preschool programmes. What factors are needed to implement and scale-up quality ECE programmes? That is the central question of this IIEP project, which aims to strengthen analyses and contribute fresh ideas to education planners.

Which preschool models produce good results, at what cost and with which funding strategies? Until now, we have very little information on these questions of cost-effectiveness, quality, and financing of early childhood education services, even though they are critical to implementing an equitable and sustainable preschool programme at the national level.

Diane Coury, Programme specialist at IIEP

This research directly echoes the United Nations’ Education 2030 Agenda. Sustainable Development Goal 4.2 (SDG 4.2) aims to ensure that by 2030 “all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development activities, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”


Our methodology and areas of research

Our research is based on a broad analysis carried out at the level of the Gambia. Conducted since 2018 in close collaboration with the Ministry of Education of this West African country of 2.3 million inhabitants, it includes:

1.    Cost-effectiveness analysis of pre-primary school models

The study is based on a sample of 112 Gambian schools, which are representative of the diversity of preschool models: public, private and community-based schools, madrassas (Koranic schools) and “mission schools” (Christian missionary schools). In total, around 100 researchers were mobilised to take part in the project to interview 112 teachers, 112 headteachers, and more than 1,200 children accompanied by their parents across the country.

2.    Quality analysis of teaching practices in pre-primary classes

In line with the first study, this analysis explores the determining factors in the quality of teaching, using a tool to observe teaching practices in preschool classes (see box below). It highlights the key role of ECE teachers.

How is our methodology innovative?


The research team has chosen an unprecedented methodological approach, which combines a tool for measuring preschool learning quality and outcomes (MELQO) with cost-calculating tools devised by IIEP, on the basis of models developed by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and the Brookings Center for Universal Education.

To analyse the quality of teaching practices, researchers also used the MELE tool, one of the specific modules of MELQO.

3.    Funding analysis of ECE models

How can we promote equal access to quality preschool services through adequate and sustainable financing? That is the common thread of the third pillar of this research, which paints a complete picture of financing for early childhood education in the Gambia from different contributors: the state, households, development partners, NGOs, private sponsors, etc. It is based on an analytical approach to financing for the education sector, on the methodology of national education accounts, and on IIEP’s methodological guidelines for education sector analysis.

Early childhood education - research in pre-primary schools in the Gambia

How will our research help IIEP’s audiences and partners?



The results of this research will feed into IIEP’s courses addressing the specificities of early childhood education in terms of educational planning. They will also enrich the training content linked to the question of “cost-effectiveness” in the Advanced Training Programme.

→ Consult the course modules of our MOOC Mainstreaming early childhood education into education sector planning (in French, Spanish or Portuguese)

→ Consult the course modules of our MOOC Mainstreaming early childhood education into education sector planning (English only)

Technical support to states

This programme provides innovative ideas to adapt and strengthen existing methodologies and instruments to measure and evaluate the costs, effectiveness, and quality of the ECE sector - and a mapping of funding flows. It will lead to the creation of several practical tools, accessible online, that will facilitate analyses by ministries to test different scenarios and policy options.

This research will therefore contribute to supporting political dialogue, through the development and implementation of preschool services that are equitable, of a high quality, and financially sustainable.

This project specifically addresses IIEP’s 1st, 2nd and 5th thematic priorities for the period 2018-2021.

Find out more about IIEP’s 2018-2021 strategy