Investing in the Future: Why Funders Should Prioritize Early Childhood Education
By Shayadri Singh and Shreya Goel
The Indian education system is undergoing significant changes. The contemporary discourse recognizes high-quality Early Childhood Education (ECE) as an "equalizing tool" to address socio-economic inequalities. However, almost half of the children in India still lack access to quality ECE. Stanford University researchers found that children from low-income families lag six months behind their peers from high-income families in arithmetic, language processing skills, and vocabulary. Interventions have not closed the gap, rendering remedial efforts ineffective in later years. Despite the evidence highlighting ECE's importance as the foundation for future learning and success, the sector remains chronically underfunded in India.
Several factors contribute to the underfunding of private support for ECE in India. Funders often lack awareness of the critical role ECE plays in shaping a child's overall development. The profound impact of quality early education on cognitive, social, and emotional skills might not be fully comprehended. Additionally, the lack of standardization in assessing learning outcomes and the perception that education is already adequately funded in India hinder private funding for ECE. Furthermore, private donors tend to prioritize areas with immediate and measurable results, such as infrastructure or healthcare, over longer-term and nuanced benefits of investing in ECE.
Addressing these challenges requires efforts to conduct rigorous research and disseminate evidence on the long-term benefits of private funding in ECE. Fostering a culture of trust and emphasizing that education, including early childhood education, requires continuous support and resources beyond government funding can address the perception of limited immediate returns. Prioritizing investments in ECE is essential, as it holds the key to shaping not only the futures of individual children but also has myriad benefits for the nation and the funders.
Funders stand to benefit from investing in ECE, as evidenced by Dr. James Heckman's "Heckman Curve," which shows that every rupee invested in early childhood yields a return of 6-10x, one of the highest among all interventions. Investing in ECE is more than a moral imperative; it is a strategic move to ensure positive externality.
Recent developments in India, such as the National Curriculum Framework for Foundational Stage and the National Taskforce Report on ECCE, along with the inclusion of "Poshan Bhi, Padhai Bhi" (Education with Nutrition) under Mission Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0, make it an exciting time for funders to invest in ECE for its multifold positive impact.
As a funder, you should consider investing in ECE for three main reasons:
1. Strengthening future and present workforce: High-quality ECE sets a firm foundation to develop the skills required in the modern job market. Efficient early childhood services enable parents to be more present and productive at work, improving labor participation and empowering women to confidently return to work. Several developed countries with the highest percentage of working mothers and gender parity all deliver nationally subsidized, high-quality, inclusive, integrated childcare programs with a significant focus on ECE.
2. Funding ECE through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): Adding ECE to existing CSR programs yields higher returns per dollar and enhances a company's brand image. Despite India's significant efforts toward achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4 or Global Goal 4), which is about quality education, the education landscape still faces several infrastructure challenges. This can be resolved with sustainable and sufficient funding. CSR funding also allows corporations to support government efforts, contributing to capacity-building, training, and technical support initiatives, fostering better government relationships.
3. Promoting values of social responsibility among employees
Investing in ECE can also promote values of social responsibility among employees, leading to excellent employee retention and satisfaction. Prioritizing investments in ECE strengthens relationships with customers, the local community, and other stakeholders, resonating with those who value social impact.
The Indian ECE landscape is changing, but adequate funds are still lacking to reach every child. Funders must take action to address financing gaps that public funding alone cannot cover and provide a fitting start to every child in India. By mobilizing resources, expertise, and support from a diverse range of partners, funders can ensure that all children have access to quality ECE and the best possible start in life. The future of India depends on it.