Early childhood education and care

As family structures change, so do the relative ages of parents. More women and men are waiting until later in life to start a family. They do so for a number of reasons, including planning for greater financial security and emotional maturity, taking more time to find a stable relationship, and committing to their careers before turning their attention to having children. As younger and older parents are also more likely to be in the workforce today, there is a growing need for early childhood education. In addition, there is increasing awareness of the key role that early childhood education plays in the cognitive and emotional development of the young.

Enrolling children in early childhood education can also mitigate social inequalities and promote better student outcomes overall. Many of the inequalities found in education systems are already evident when children enter formal schooling and persist as they progress through the school system. Because inequalities tend to grow when school is not compulsory, earlier entrance into the school system may reduce these inequalities. In addition, pre-primary education helps to prepare children to enter and succeed in formal schooling.


The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) level 0 refers to early childhood programmes that have an intentional education component. ISCED level 0 programmes target children below the age of entry into primary education (ISCED level 1). These programmes aim to develop cognitive, physical and socio-emotional skills necessary for participation and well-being in school and society.

Thanks to the new ISCED classification, level 0 covers now early childhood education for all ages, including very young children. Programmes are sub-classified into two categories, depending on the level of complexity of the educational content: early childhood educational development (code 01) and pre-primary education (code 02). Early childhood educational development programmes (code 01) are generally designed for children younger than 3. They were introduced as a new category in ISCED-2011 and were not covered by ISCED-97. Pre-primary education (code 02) corresponds exactly to level 0 in ISCED-97.


There are many different early education systems and structures within OECD countries. Consequently, there is also a range of different approaches to identifying the boundary between early childhood education and childcare. These differences should be taken into account when drawing conclusions from international comparisons.


In most OECD countries, education now begins for most children well before they are 5 years old. Four out of ten 2-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education across OECD countries, as a whole, growing to almost three out of four (74%) for 3-year-olds. The highest enrolment rates of 3-year-olds in early childhood education are found in Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom.

The ratio of children to teaching staff is an indicator of the resources devoted to early childhood education. The child-teacher ratio at the pre-primary level, excluding non-teaching staff (e.g. teachers’ aides), ranges from more than 20 children per teacher in Chile, China, France, Indonesia and Mexico, to fewer than 10 in Estonia, Iceland, New Zealand, Russia, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Sustained public funding is critical for supporting the growth and quality of early childhood education programmes. Public expenditure on pre-primary education is mainly used to support public institutions, but in some countries it also funds private institutions, to varying degrees. At the pre-primary level, annual expenditure, from both public and private sources, per child for both public and private institutions averages USD 8 008 in OECD countries. However, expenditure varies from USD 4 000 or less in Israel, Latvia and South Africa, to more than USD 10 000 in Australia, Iceland, Luxembourg, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.


Further information  

Methodological publications

Online databases


Table. Early childhood educational development programmes and pre-primary education


Enrolment rates at age 3 and 4 in early childhood education