Report Summary

Starting Well is an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) research programme, commissioned by the Lien Foundation, which ranks the preschool environments in 45 countries.

Consciously setting aside a time to stimulate young children’s development is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the 1980s, preschools in most countries were largely focussed on providing simple child minding. But as economies shift towards more knowledge-based activities, awareness about child development—the need to improve their social awareness, confidence and group interaction skills, and to prepare them for starting primary education—continues to grow. Nevertheless, policymakers still give most attention to the tertiary, secondary and primary levels of education, in descending order of importance, with the least focus given to the early years of child development.

This is a missed opportunity as preschools can help ensure that all children get a strong start in life, especially those from low-income or disadvantaged households. “The data are really incontrovertible,” explains Sharon Kagan, a professor of early childhood and family policy at Columbia University in the US. “Three strands of research combine to support the importance of the early years. From neuro-scientific research, we understand the criticality of early brain development; from social science research, we know that high quality programmes improve children’s readiness for school and life; and from econometric research, we know that high quality programs save society significant amounts of money over time.  Early childhood contributes to creating the kinds of workforces that are going to be needed in the twenty-first century.”

There are also broader reasons to invest in preschool. At one level, it helps facilitate greater female participation in the workforce, which bolsters economic growth. Early childhood development is also a major force in helping overcome issues relating to child poverty and educational disadvantage. “It is about those very young children who are going to grow up as successful lifelong learners and citizens making an economic contribution to society,” says Christine Pascal, director of the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC), an independent research organisation. “This is especially so in very unequal societies where you get generational and cyclical repetition of poverty and low achievement.”

Against this backdrop, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) was commissioned by the Lien Foundation, a Singapore-based philanthropic organisation, to devise an index to rank preschool provision across 45 countries, encompassing the OECD and major emerging markets. At its core, the Starting Well Index assesses the extent to which these governments provide a good, inclusive early childhood education (ECE) environment for children between the ages of three and six. In particular, it considers the relative availability, affordability and quality of such preschool environments. (See the report Appendix for a full methodology; and the Terms and definitions box at the end of this chapter for explanation on what “preschool” encompasses.)

To accompany this data-driven research, the EIU interviewed experts around the world and reviewed existing research to assess major developments, obtain guidance on good practices, and highlight key issues to address. Among the key findings of the research are as follows:

The Nordic countries perform best at preschool, and European countries dominate the rankings. Finland, Sweden and Norway top the Index, thanks to sustained, long-term investments and prioritisation of early childhood development, which is now deeply embedded in society. In general, Europe’s state-led systems perform well, as the provision of universal preschool has steadily become a societal norm. This trend continues to develop. Ireland introduced a universal free year of preschool in 2010, for example, despite chronic budgetary difficulties. In general, the leading countries in this Index have the following elements in place for their preschool systems:

  • A comprehensive early childhood development and promotion strategy, backed up with a legal right to such education.
  • Universal enrolment of children in at least a year of preschool at ages five or six, with nearly universal enrolment between the ages of three and five.
  • Subsidies to ensure access for underprivileged families.
  • Where provision is privatised, the cost of such care is affordable relative to average wages.
  • A high bar for preschool educators, with specific qualification requirements. This is often backed up with commensurate wages, as well as low student-teacher ratios.
  • A well-defined preschool curriculum, along with clear health and safety standards.
  • Clear parental involvement and outreach.
  • A broad socioeconomic environment that ensures that children are healthy and well-nourished when they enter preschool.

Many high-income countries rank poorly, despite wealth being a major factor in a country’s ability to deliver preschool services. Australia, Canada, Singapore and the US, for example, are all listed in the lower half of the Index, despite having high average per-capita incomes. This is not to suggest that quality preschool programmes are lacking in these countries. But such schemes are not available or affordable to all strands of society, while minimum quality standards vary widely. This is a missed opportunity. As economies increasingly compete on the quality of their human capital, policymakers need to ensure that all children get the best possible preparation for primary school.

Several countries punch above their weight, delivering widespread preschool services, despite having lower average per-capita incomes relative to their peers. Despite budgetary challenges, a number of other countries, such as Chile and the Czech Republic, have made significant efforts to ensure preschool provision for all families, including instituting it as a legal right. Even though significant further work is needed to bolster preschool standards in these countries, they have made laudable gains in ensuring at least a minimum level of provision for all. For emerging countries seeking to improve their innovative potential, they need to ensure that as many children as possible have a strong start in life. This is a crucial first step as they seek to transform their economies from low to high value-add activities.

Public sector spending cuts pose a major threat to preschools, especially among recent adopters. Just as the logic of ECE is becoming increasingly widespread, preschool provision is threatened by policymakers battling to rein in deficits. This is especially true within countries where preschool provision is not yet a societal norm, although European countries will also struggle to maintain spending amidst widespread budget cuts. The threats come despite a growing body of research, which suggests that increased government investment in early childhood development, if directed well, can result in annual returns ranging from 8% to 17%, which largely accrue to wider society. Such returns come from the reduced need for later remedial education and spending, as well as lower crime and less welfare reliance in later life, among other things.

Much basic progress is still required. While many countries lack the financial and human capital resources to establish a rounded, universal preschool environment, far too many still fail to take even the first steps. At the very least, countries can still provide guidelines and quality standards, even if these cannot yet be properly enforced. Among wealthier countries that are making considerable steps towards quality universal provision, many have yet to enforce even a minimum level of preschool as a legal right for children.

Affordability of preschool is typically worst in those countries where availability is most limited. As simple economics would suggest, those countries with the lowest availability of preschool are also the ones where it is most expensive. This hits lower-income countries hard. In China, the least affordable country in this Index, preschools in Beijing charge monthly fees up to six times as much as a top university. In general, as preschool provision becomes more widely available in a country, it also tends to become more affordable.

Ensuring a high standard of teacher training and education, setting clear curriculum guidelines, and ensuring parental involvement are some of the main drivers of preschool education quality. Experts from around the world highlight the importance of a high-quality system in ensuring good overall outcomes from preschool education, not least to distinguish it from simple childcare. The factors defining quality are widespread, from high training standards and well-defined guidelines to ensuring parental involvement too. Other factors can help too: reducing student-teacher ratios in classes; ensuring good health and safety measures; and creating clear links between preschool and primary school, to name just a few.

A more globalised world requires greater integration of children in the classroom... Increased global migration in recent decades has resulted in a rise in the number of immigrant children entering the educational systems in many countries. While the UK, for example, laudably includes all children within its preschool provision, regardless of citizenship status, other countries do far less—for instance, not providing subsidies to non-citizens. As many societies face the need to adjust to increasing diversity, better preschool integration can help ensure greater societal integration.

…But globalisation also poses a risk to countries that rush to adopt curriculums from other countries, without adapting them for their local cultures and traditions. It is all too easy for countries to adopt each other’s curriculums and guidelines today. While many good practices can indeed be shared, experts caution that countries need to ensure that they cherish and promote their unique individual cultures. New Zealand and South Korea, for example, both make great efforts to promote and accentuate their local cultures. In some places, such as Northern Ireland, this can form an important facet of the transition from past conflict or civil strife, by promoting greater respect of contrasting views and cultures in a society.


Published:June 26th 2012

James Watson
Sudhir Vadaketh
Interviewed for this report:

Kim Thomas assisted with research, interviews and case studies. The Index was devised and constructed by an EIU research team led by Trisha Suresh and Manoj Vohra.

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