Beijing, February 22, 2011 – Prenatal care and the quality of life experienced in the early years from birth to the first six years affect physical and brain development of children, and lay the foundation for cognitive and socio-emotional development in subsequent stages of their lives. Investing in early childhood development and education yields high economic returns, is the most cost-effective strategy to break the inter-generational transmission of poverty, and improves productivity and social cohesion in the long run, says a World Bank study released here today.
Early Childhood Development and Education in China: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty and Improving Future Competitiveness, a report produced by the World Bank in collaboration with China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, offers proposals on how human development can be further advanced in China by investing in early childhood development and education (ECDE). The report reviews the development status of the 0-6-year-age-old cohort, assesses the equity of access to services in light of public and private finance, and explores policy options to serve children who do not have access to services. The report draws from national and international data, including a household survey to benchmark progress, identify gaps and assess policy options.
“In China, about 16 million babies are born each year. In total, there are about 100 million 0-6 year old children. They are the future of the nation, and their families place great hope on them. Childhood is a critical period of one’s life. Early childhood experience has a great impact on the development of one’s intelligence, character and social behavior. If the window of opportunity is missed during early childhood, it would be much costlier and harder to build a successful life later,” said Dr. Zhao Baige, Vice Minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission.
“Brain development is most active in the first two years of life. Providing nutrition, health care, and early stimulation would significantly strengthen subsequent physical and cognitive development of children.” said Kin Bing Wu, World Bank’s Lead Education Specialist and the Task Team Leader of the study.
“Investing in early childhood development and education is perhaps the most cost-effective way to improve the lives of China's next generation,” said Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President, Development Economics. “The international evidence is very strong: such investments yield economic returns of 7 to 18 percent, which is much higher than the returns generated by investing in financial capital. In one of the best known American pre-school programs, for every dollar invested, over $8 in benefits were returned to the program participants and society because of higher academic achievement, higher wages, and lower criminal offenses.”
Among the report’s main findings and recommendations:
- Science-based evidence finds interventions in early years of life most critical to subsequent human development. Neuroscience and longitudinal studies of ECDE show that lack of access to nutrition and health care, insufficiently stimulating human interaction, and non-enrollment in pre-primary education are associated with lower educational attainment and achievement, which, in turn, reduce life-time earnings. Longitudinal studies find that children who have attended kindergartens are less likely to have socially disruptive behavior, compared with the control group.
- Investing in ECDE yields the highest economic returns and can break the cycle of poverty. Early learning and formation of good habits and social skills are far more productive than later remedial education and training. China’s goal to develop a harmonious society and to improve the competitiveness of its future workforce in order to move towards a high-income society would be more effectively served by investing in ECDE. Since China has universalized nine years of compulsory education and has rapidly increased enrollment in post-compulsory education, the provision of ECDE services for the 0-6 age group would close a gap in the country’s human resource development strategy.
- China has underinvested in ECDE. Disparity in access to service is partly the result of inadequate public expenditure. In 2008, ECDE accounted for 9.3 percent of the total enrollment in the education system but public spending on ECDE was at 0.01 percent of GDP, or 1.3 percent of the total public expenditure on education. This is far below the OECD average of 0.5 percent of GDP, or 8 percent of total public spending. ECDE services are financed mostly on a cost-recovery basis, be that public or private nurseries and kindergartens. Public spending on the services for the 0-3 year-olds is insignificant.
- Tuition fees are barrier to access for the poor and insufficient provision disadvantages rural and minority children. Although China has made enormous progress in maternal and child health and has reached about 51 percent gross enrollment for the 3-6 age group in 2009, rural children are under served, particularly the extremely poor and ethnic minorities. Roughly 60 percent of China’s young children lived, but only 43 percent enrollment was in rural areas. The 0-3 age-group is particularly under served. Increasing public investment is needed to realize the targets of expanding the gross enrollment ratio for 3 years of pre-primary education to 60 percent in 2015 and 70 percent in 2020, as set out in the National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020).
- Prenatal care, nutrition, medical care, early stimulation and parenting education can overcome inequality in life. The report’s multivariate analysis of a household survey in Hunan finds that enrollment in kindergartens, access to health check-up, nutrition, caregivers’ access to information, and good parenting practices at home are positively associated with weight, height, social and cognitive development of 3-year-olds. Interventions in these areas can overcome disparities in child development due to household income, educational attainment of the mother and caregivers, ethnicity, rural location, and being left-behind by migrant parents.
- Targeting extremely poor women and children for assistance in the medium-term and eventual universalization of ECDE for the 0-6 age group can build a harmonious society and a competitive future workforce. While the report considers it very important to universalize ECDE, its policy recommendations focus on the medium term. The report advocates a two-pronged, pro-poor approach for the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015). First, the Anti-Poverty Program should include ECDE for the extremely poor, and poverty monitoring should include child development outcomes. Second, expansion of ECDE is financially feasible if: central fiscal transfer supplements county spending in Western and Central Regions in a similar way as it supports compulsory education; and cost-effective community-based and home-based interventions in pre-natal care, parenting education, medical check-ups for children, and early stimulation programs. Conditional cash transfer or vouchers could be used to stimulate demand.
“The World Bank places great significance on early childhood development and education because this is the foundation of life. We consider it to be indispensible to alleviate poverty, to improve human resource development, and to sustain China's future competitiveness,” said Klaus Rohland, World Bank Country Director for China.
“We hope the best practices highlighted in the report in early childhood development can be ensured in more effective development of China’s early childhood development programs,” said James W. Adams, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and the Pacific.