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Results Briefs October 11, 2020

Enhancing Equitable Access to Quality Early Childhood Development in Sri Lanka


Teachers use hand held thermal sensing thermometers for all children entering the centers.

Photo Credit: Project Management Unit, ECD Project, Children’s Secretariat, former-MWCASS

The Early Childhoold Development Project is working to improve the quality of and expand equitable acccess to early childhood development (ECD) services in Sri Lanka. Since 2016, the project has benefitted more than 1.35 million children between 3 and 5 years of age—half of whom are girls—and as of July 2020, 4,136 ECD centers were meeting national quality standards, compared to just 1,000 in 2015.


Sri Lanka, a lower middle-income country, has a well-established program for Maternal and Child Health (MCH) that is committed to improving access to quality ECD services. To this end, it has been pursuing a strategy of public-private partnerships to expand access to ECD services. While progress is being made, pre-primary education is not yet universal, and the quality of ECD programs remains a challenge. Before the project started, ECD coverage was low and inequitable. Physical facilities and teaching and learning materials, furniture, and other inputs were of poor quality, the teaching force was not sufficiently trained, and national standards and systems for monitoring quality were inadequate. A national survey indicated that less than half of all ECD centers had facilities that met basic requirements for instructional quality. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, the government’s efforts to improve access to early childhood care and education was making good progress.    


Responding to the government’s request to help build Sri Lanka’s ECD system, in 2015 the World Bank financed the first-ever ECD project in the country and, more generally, in the South Asia Region. The Bank harnessed technical assistance from leading ECD specialists and used cutting-edge research to inform project design. The differing needs of the country’s plantation and non-plantation sectors were independently addressed, while ensuring that solutions would lead to coherent systemic improvements. Tea is a major export commodity for Sri Lanka. The Plantation Sector is managed by the Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT) and requires integrated early childhood care and education services to permit parents, especially women to continue with tea harvesting and tea curing activities. In the non-Plantation Sector early childhood care and education are separate services. They are managed and administered by two ministries and multiple agencies. Their needs differ with respect to financing, governance, and service delivery solutions. A particularly innovative facet was the focus on brokering discussions and agreements between the public and private sectors for the public financing of private ECD centers.


The Project has had far reaching results. About 1.35 million children between the years 2015 and 2020, half of whom were girls, have benefitted directly, along with teachers, parents, members of the community (who were provided with ECD awareness and orientation programs), government officials, and project management staff.

Enhancing equitable access to ECD services: 578,160 or 12.8 percent more children, half of them girls, are now enrolled in 2020 in ECD centers compared to 512,620 children in 2015. Some  4,498 ECD centers are receiving Facility Improvement Grants. Prior to the project, private funding for private ECD centers was the norm. About 31,816 children receive tuition subsidy.

Improving the quality of ECD services: By September 2020, about 4,136 ECD centers were meeting national quality standards compared to only 1,000 in 2015; this result considerably exceeds the original end target of 3,500 centers. The project also supported the revision of the curriculum and child development standards used to guide the teaching-learning process in centers throughout the country. About  15,471 ECD teachers and teacher assistants have completed standardized short-term training between year 2015 and 2020. The majority of teachers had not been exposed to any form of ECD orientation/training programs prior to this initiative. Parental awareness programs on ECD have also been conducted through the project.

ECD centers conducting annual child development assessments: In 2020, about  3,852 centers (of which  365 were in the plantations) were conducting child development assessments, compared to none in 2015.  

The recent COVID pandemic has increased poverty and vulnerability among many families and ECD centers had to close temporarily. The project has responded by:

  • Financing personal protective equipment (masks, sanitizers, handheld thermal sensing thermometers) and hand washing basins in ECD centers for the health and safety of children and teachers.  
  • Expanding the tuition fee waiver support to more children as a direct assistance to the families facing economic hardships in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Providing teaching learning materials and kits to more centers to cater to a larger population of children in need.

12.8 percent

more children, half of them girls, are now enrolled in ECD centers in 2020 compared to the number of children in 2015.

Bank Group Contribution

The Early Childhood Development Project is financed by an International Development Association (IDA) Credit of US$50 million to support the GoSL’s ECD initiatives.


The Government of Sri Lanka leveraged funds through the World Bank to improve access to quality ECD services. Implementation was fostered through joint planning and implementation support, mutually reinforcing the commitment to the project. Specifically, concerted support was provided by the following key stakeholders:

-- The External Resources Department (ERD) with the National Planning Department (NPD).

-- The Children’s Secretariat of the new State Ministry of Women and Child Development, Pre-schools and Primary Education, School Infrastructure and Education Services that houses the Project Management Unit and playing a leading role in project implementation.

-- The Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT), which is responsible for implementing project activities in the Plantation Sector.

-- Provincial and District level administrations supporting the Children Secretariat’s efforts to ensure that the Facilities Improvement Grants are received and well executed.

-- Teachers and administrators of public and private ECD Centers who provide timely and reliable care of the children in their care.

-- Communities and parents lending their support and commitment to maintaining and improving infrastructure facilities.

Distribution of face masks and sterilizer bottles for the Plantation Sector and ceremonial handing over of Hand Washing Units to PHDT by the Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, Hon. Pavithra Wanniarachchi and former Minister of Community Empowerment and Estate Infrastructure Development, Late Hon. Arumugan Thondaman on May 12, 2020 in Nuwaraeliya. Photo Credit: Project Management Unit, ECD Project, GoSL

Moving Forward

The high level of government commitment, and the use of country systems and processes are key factors that will contribute to the project’s sustainability. Despite changes in the government over the five years of project implementation, GoSL has shown its continued commitment to the project and early childhood development by setting up a special State Ministry of Child Affairs with its own budget to administer ECD activities. In addition, GoSL has allocated resources in the budget for nutritional support to expectant mothers to help address issues related to early childhood nutrition. The project has helped the government to institutionalize some key reforms such as the revised curriculum framework and child development standards for teaching and learning.


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a key concern of the Project Management Unit was the design, functionality, and availability of the hand washing units in ECD centers , the associated environmental aspects, demonstrating to parents that ECD centers can be safe early learning places for their children, and providing  infrared thermometers and hand sanitizers.

“A child friendly wash basin unit and a Thermometer to identified preschools (on need basis) as a COVID - 19 disaster immediate management activity was commenced during the COVID lock down period itself.

We have covered all Child Development Centers in plantations and 3,000 more preschools island-wide by now. The ECD project will extend this support to a further 7,000 preschools in all districts…We intend to inculcate the good habit of hand washing among children while we do our best to prevent the spread of this Global Pandemic.”

--Ravi Nanayakkara, M.D., Project Manager, Early Childhood Development Project, Ministry of Women and Child Development, Pre-School & Primary Education, School Infrastructure & Education Services.


“I am Choolani Silva from Little Kids Preschool. The children attending my school comes from low income families, and their parents are not able to afford any of the safety equipment necessary to run the preschool. Therefore, I give my thanks for this valuable donation of wash basins and Non-Contactable Infrared Thermometers by the World Bank Early Childhood Development Project to help us start the school and run it with proper safety measures in place. I send thanks again from the bottom of my heart to all the officials at Early Childhood Development Project for this donation.”

-- Ms. Choolani Silva, ECD Teachers, Little Kids Preschools, Kalutara District.


“After months of global pandemic outbreak, we would like to thank Early Childhood Project in Plantation for the generous support extended to our community. The Hand Washing Units, Sanitizers, Thermometers, Face Masks are  all non- commercial distribution made to us, played a major role in preventing, transmitting  of COVID-19 in Plantation, specially our Children, Parents and Care takers as well, and made sure they are protected at this crisis time. In short, the ECDP Project assisted and led this initiative well to balance the uncertain situation in the long run for which we are grateful.”

 – Mr. G. Sajith Udara de Silva, Estate Manager, Miriswatte Estate, Namunukula Plantation


“We usually see wash basins and thermometers and such facilities given to privileged schools. Providing an underserved school like ours these essential wash basins and thermometers so that our children can start their schooling means so much to us. We as parents can now send our children to school without fear of the virus spreading to our children. For ensuring the safety of our children and helping to continue their education in these hard times, we sincerely thank the Early Childhood Development Project…”

-- Mrs. Dabodini, Parent, Preschool: Murugun Preschool; Batticaloa District, Kovil Poraithevupattu Division.


“Due to the spread of Corona Virus, preschools were closed on March 2020. On 17th August the preschools were allowed to open, but only with necessary safety equipment and measures in place. By generously providing our preschool with wash basins and Non-Contactable Infrared Thermometers, Early Childhood Development Project has enabled us to open our preschool for our children to attend within a safe and secure environment. For this timely donation I wish to send my sincere appreciation to the ECD Project.”

-- Head Teacher Ms. J. Reheema, Al Asthar Preschool, Anuradhapura District, Horopathana Division.

Children wash hands before entering the center. Photo Credit: Project Management Unit, ECD Project, Children’s Secretariat, former-MWCASS

Distribution to ECD centers is ongoing in the non-plantation and plantation sectors.