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Tool 1.3: Worksheet

Defining ‘Pre-Primary’ or ‘Early Childhood’ Education in Your Country Context

© GPE/Chantal Rigaud


As you work toward including the pre-primary subsector in your country’s Education Sector Plan, there may be questions about exactly what this subsector includes.

Does it include services for 0-3-year-olds? Is it only about curriculum? Does it only refer to government-sponsored programs?

Some in your country may need support in defining pre-primary education (PPE) or early childhood education (ECE).  You may also find that different groups in the country may have different ways of defining the subsector’s scope. By building consensus about key terminology and descriptions of the subsector, you may move toward a unified vision. This vision may clarify:

  • what the subsector is;
  • how it works in coordination with and/or as a sub-group of the education sector;
  • how it exists as part of one or more multi-sectoral ECD working groups without duplicating mandates; and
  • what is needed to ensure ECE is optimally reflected and understood in your Education Sector Analysis and Education Sector Plan.

By using this tool (which is a worksheet), you will identify current definitions, coverage, challenges, and implementation opportunities and gaps in your country and reflect on actions that may be needed in response.


Using this tool will enable stakeholders to:

When to Use this Tool

This tool may be used:

before developing your country’s ECE subsector analysis and later action and implementation plans; or when preparing Transitional Education Plans or proposals in contexts of emergencies and conflicts.

The “Key information” and “Worksheet” can help. You may use it not only to gather information but also to consider how that information can lead to action. Other tools, including those related to establishing an Early Childhood Education Technical Working Group, will be useful resources for that purpose.

Key Information

According to UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED), “Pre-primary education refers to organized programmes that are intentionally designed to include educational content for children usually aged 3 years up to the start of primary education, often around age 6”.

Discussions of pre-primary education consistently emphasize that this subsector is embedded within the broader Early Childhood Development (ECD) context. According to UNICEF’s Programme Guidance for Early Childhood Development, the definition of ECD has three parts: (i) the “early childhood” period of life; (ii) what constitutes development; and (iii) how development occurs.

  • The early childhood phase encompasses distinct phases, starting with the first 1000 days (conception to age 3), followed by the preschool/pre-primary years (3 years up to school entry) and early primary years (until about age 8).
  • Development consists of the continuous process of acquiring skills and abilities during this age period across the domains of cognition, language, motor, social and emotional development.
  • Development is the results of the interaction between the environment and the child. A stable environment is one that is sensitive to children’s health and nutritional needs, with protection from threats, opportunities for early learning and interactions that are responsive, emotionally supportive and developmentally stimulating (what is called “nurturing care”).

Pre-primary education is thus an integral component of ECD, which refers to all the essential policies and programmes required to support the healthy development of children from birth to 8 years of age, including health, nutrition, protection, early learning opportunities and responsive caregiving. In some countries, there might be policies and legislation that are multisectoral, with a mandate on holistic ECD that contains a component on pre-primary education. In other countries, there might be legislation or policies that are specific to pre-primary education, which are generally more effective in driving action and results in this subsector.

For those who are discussing the country’s pre-primary/ECD definition and its implications, it is important to consider these linkages, as shown in Figure 1.  The Figure might be used in a technical working group discussion or stakeholder workshop at an early stage of your process:

Figure 1. Early learning (for ages 3 up to school entry) in the context of ECD
Figure 1. Early learning (for ages 3 up to school entry) in the context of ECD Source: UNICEF, Build to Last: A framework in support of universal quality pre-primary education, UNICEF, New York, 2020

While pre-primary/ECE may be defined as a distinct subsector, it is also embedded in the Education sector. In many if not most countries, responsibility for ECE/PPE falls within the scope of the Ministry of Education, although sometimes shared with other ministries. In some contexts, although PPE/ECE serves children of a certain age (for example, ages 3-5) according to education policy, it is also part of a continuum of coordinated services at the local level for children 0-8. For example, settings that provide preschool or kindergarten programs often serve as sites for birth registration, immunization, and ECD parenting programming, targeting children other than those directly enrolled in PPE.

As a result, the ECE/PPE subsector bridges and links (a) the comprehensive Nurturing Care Framework which outlines the core services for children ages 0-3, (b) the holistic ECD agenda, and (c) the Education sector, having a uniquely important place in the continuum of children’s development and education. It may be helpful to consider whether your country’s pre-primary/ECE definition and its dissemination make these linkages clear.

Pre-primary education has long been recognized as particularly important in crisis settings, to promote psychosocial and cognitive development, as well as the life skills for tolerance, gender sensitivity and cooperation. For young children living in countries affected by emergencies, pre-primary education opportunities can have some of the biggest and most lasting benefits. However, in those countries, only 1 in 3 children are enrolled in PPE.  In 2015, it was estimated that 16 million infants were born into conflict. Yet, in 2016, just 10 out of 38 humanitarian response plans, flash appeals and refugee response plans made any mention of early childhood development, early childhood education or similar terminology. The gap in access to and financing for ECE in crisis contexts is critical and requires immediate attention by both governments and donors.

It is thus important to consider how the PPE/ECE subsector is defined in humanitarian response plans, the cluster system or other national sector, disaster or humanitarian coordination working groups, to ensure that ECE can be prioritized during a crisis and that young children from refugee or internally displaced populations have access to early education opportunities.

Not all countries use this definition precisely as stated here. Different countries take different considerations into account. You may notice differences between this definition and how your country describes the subsector. The following are examples of these variations, which are influenced by many factors in the country context. Use these considerations along with the worksheet to establish, revisit, or clarify an ECE definition in your context. Such actions may be conducted in conjunction with the establishment or strengthening of your ECE Technical Working Group or as one of that group’s roles and responsibilities.

In many countries, pre-primary or early childhood education is formally defined within the government’s policies and/or legislation (for example, as part of the Ministry of Education’s policy directive or law on education).  This definition might be part of an overall education policy or within a separate early childhood policy framework.

Nepal’s Act Relating to Compulsory and Free Education, 2075 (2018)

Nepal’s education law provides the following definition for PPE/ECE:

"Early childhood development and education" means childhood development and education of the period of one year focusing on overall development of the children, which is provided for the children who have completed the age of four years before stepping into grade one.

It also states:

6. To provide compulsory education: (1) After the commencement of this Act, the State shall make provisions to provide compulsory education up to the basic level to every child who has completed four years but not completed thirteen years of age, through every Local Level. (2) In addition to the education mentioned in sub-section (1), at least one year's early childhood development and education shall be provided after the completion of the age of four years.


Other countries may not have an official definition within PPE/ECE-related policies and legislation. In those countries, an ECE definition might appear in unofficial or non-legal documents related to, for example, monitoring frameworks, workforce initiatives, sector analyses, or similar resources. You – perhaps through an ECE TWG – can explore where your country’s definition or definitions appear.

Use the worksheet  to determine and document whether the subsector definition is part of official policy or legislation, and if so, which policy or legislation.

The definition in UNESCO’s ISCED classification system uses the term “pre-primary education” (PPE).  Many countries use that term in their definition; many others use the term “early childhood education,” or ECE, with the same meaning.

However, these are not the only labels that countries use.  Your country might call the subsector “Preschool,” or “Pre-Kindergarten,” or “Kindergarten,” or “Early Childhood Care and Education” (ECCE), “Grade R,” or “Zero Class,” or some other generally agreed-upon name.  Some countries have one broad name for the subsector (Pre-Primary, Early Childhood Education, etc.), with other names (such as Kindergarten and Preschool) used to describe specific services/service delivery options within the subsector.  There are also differences across countries in whether what are called “ECD Centers” or “preschools” include only those that provide education-focused services for children ages 3-6, or whether the definition includes comprehensive or holistic services for children 0-8 (health, nutrition, education, child protection).

Use the worksheet  to determine/clarify the terminology(ies) used in your country.

Ghana’s two years of pre-primary education are called kindergarten are part of the universal basic education system.

South Africa has Grade R, which is the reception year for 5-year-olds.

Serbia’s “preschool education” is intended for children of preschool age, from 6 months to the beginning of primary school. Its “preparatory preschool programme” is intended for children who are one year away from going to primary school. Since 2006, preparatory preschool is mandatory. It lasts 4 hours a day for at least 9 months.

UNESCO’s ISCED definition includes an age range beginning at 3 and ending at the start of primary education, typically when children are around 6 years old.

However, countries may use a somewhat different age range , often related to the way that the country’s education sector is organized, or the scope of ministerial responsibilities, or the standard age for primary education to commence.  As a result, many countries define PPE/ECE as beginning at age 4. In some contexts, governments have limited pre-primary to the year immediately preceding primary school entry, often ages 5-6. Countries in which the mandated age of primary school entry is later (age 7 or 8) the pre-primary years would end later—so that the range might be ages 4 or 5 to 7 or 8.

Additionally, most definitions seem intended to include all children within the PPE/ECE age range (including special populations such as children with disabilities, children living in conflict, ethnically and linguistically diverse populations, etc.), although these may not be specified.

Although some of these variations may not be significant, others may raise concerns about coverage among vulnerable or marginalized groups. Use the worksheet to help you identify current gaps in which groups are included.  Excluding some populations is likely to limit or even ignore the resources and services they will receive.

In Kenya, the goal of its National Pre-Primary Education Policy (2017) is to enhance access to quality relevant pre-primary education services to all children aged 4-5 years.

The UNESCO’s ISCED definition emphasizes that pre-primary services are “intentionally designed to include educational content,” and the word “education” often appears in countries’ definitions of the subsector.  Thus, an organized focus on education and school readiness is a theme across pre-primary/ECE systems. However, the same definition and others used internationally emphasize the “holistic,” or “whole child” nature of pre-primary systems and services, so that “education” is viewed as including all aspects of pre-primary children’s development.

Some countries limit their definition of pre-primary education to classroom-based, formal academic instruction.  Others, while still focusing on organized classroom programs, specifically define the content more broadly or holistically.  And other countries may include both classroom programs (often part of a primary school or “preschool”) and less formal community-based playgroups or centers.  Some countries may also include in their ECE definition a range of services that target the families of children aged 3-6 (such as parenting programs, home literacy, or home visits). There may be countries that do not have any formal education programmes for children under 6 years of age exist, offering only daycare services or play groups that would not meet the international definition of ECE.

The worksheet will help you to define the services included in your country’s pre-primary subsector and summarize your country’s approach as you plan for the future.  This information may show that areas of child development known to be essential for early learning (such as physical health, or social and emotional competence) are currently not well represented. The worksheet also offers suggestions for taking action to fill such gaps. It is important, then, not only to gather this information but also to reflect on its meaning for the development of your country’s children.

Countries vary greatly in the extent to which pre-primary education is provided across varying service provider types.

  • In some countries, almost all services for children before primary school are offered by NGOs, community groups, individual entrepreneurs, faith-based organizations, or other private entities either formally accredited by, monitored by, and/or not formally connected with national or sub-national government.
  • In other countries, only formal government services are funded and monitored by the government and there are no current mechanisms for PPE/ECE provided by civil society or private institutions to become accredited and/or monitored.
  • In some contexts, there is a mix, with the national and/or subnational government developing regulations and policies but applying these only to a subgroup of services that are subject to government oversight. These differences affect how the subsector is defined and officially recognized (e.g., reports on subsector enrollment rates) within a specific country context. 

Depending on what patterns are identified as you use this tool’s Worksheet, you may find specific needs to address in your plan (such as ensuring that privately provided PPE services will receive effective oversight and equitable support).

For example, a country’s official definition of the pre-primary subsector may state that it includes children from age 3 to age 6, yet there may be almost no education-related services for children younger than 4. In some countries with late “official” ages for primary school entrance, families often choose to enroll their children a year or even two years earlier, especially if the programs are free. In other cases, families may be reluctant to enroll children in any services before primary school entry, either because of local cultural norms or, in rural areas, because of distances between home and existing program sites. Your identification of these inconsistencies may suggest a key focus for your ECE plans and activities. The worksheet will help you to identify and address these inconsistencies.