Too Little Too Late? Equitable Education Must Start Early

Addressing inequities in education is a fitting way to honor children on International Children’s Day. The field of education is awash with staggering dropout rates and children who are unable to achieve equitable access to education.

Governments often attempt to lower dropout rates by focusing efforts on programs that support primary and secondary students who have already begun their academic journey, but the path of inequity in education begins long before a child picks up their first pencil. If governments hope to decrease dropout rates in later grades, efforts should focus on creating equitable access to early childhood programs.


Preventing dropouts is of primary importance to the Cambodian Ministry of Education. The latest Education Management Information System data show that the dropout rate in primary school is 8.3 percent, lower secondary school 21 percent and upper secondary school 27.5 percent. In nine provinces, the rates exceed 30 percent.

Various interventions target students in secondary levels. While these interventions are commendable and have shown some benefits, targeting students who are already struggling to stay in school might be a case of “too little, too late.”

Recent research suggests that looking for answers earlier in students’ academic experiences, before they begin primary school, could be an effective approach to combating school dropout as a result of on-time or early school enrollment. As late enrollment in primary school is a factor in student dropout, early childhood education programs could encourage on-time enrollment.

A Lehigh University evaluation conducted in 2015 at schools in Siem Reap province, supported by the Caring for Cambodia (CFC) NGO, found that early-childhood participants enrolled in the first grade about half a year earlier than non-participants. The effect was stronger for female students participating in the program. Participating students also scored about 7 percent higher in overall semester grades compared to non-participant students.

The evaluation team speculates that preschool parents have the tools and knowledge necessary to successfully enroll their children in school on time. Additionally, access to early childhood programs could impact how parents perceive and value education.

Recently, a three-year longitudinal study published in the International Journal of Educational Development found that on-time or early enrollment was a significant factor in school dropout in Cambodia, but factors such as child labor and poverty were not linked to dropout. Students’ own academic performance, however, was linked to dropout, suggesting that the lack of foundational knowledge rather than poverty plays a key role. Further, a 2014 USAID report on a school dropout prevention pilot program showed that approximately 1/3 of dropouts and 1/5 of at-risk students said they were unable to keep up with their lessons in grades 7 to 9.

Reports of the academic and social benefits of early childhood education are numerous. Yet access to early childhood education programs, especially in developing countries such as Cambodia, remain a luxury reserved for the elite.

Fifty-six percent of 5-year-olds in Cambodia attend early childhood education and only 33 percent of Cambodia’s 4-year-olds attend early childhood education programs.

A study published in Child Development journal in 2012 found that in areas where there was access to early childhood education programs, most parents sent their children to them. This indicates that there is a need for these programs and that parents value the education that they offer. Although the government acknowledges in its strategic planning the goals of improving and expanding early childhood education, those efforts and resources allocation need to be highly prioritized.

Inequitable access to early childhood programs fails the most disadvantaged Cambodian students. A lack of early childhood education programs in rural and impoverished areas means that students are on unequal footing before they ever set foot in a classroom, in addition to facing barriers associated with geographic location and socioeconomic status.

As students spend an entire academic career struggling to catch up with their advantaged peers, there comes a point when they or their parents no longer see the value in continuing their education. Perhaps they choose to leave this inequitable system altogether.

Looking to secondary school interventions to decrease the number of students dropping out of school in Cambodia is only addressing part of the problem. Empowering young learners and their families through early childhood education policy should be a priority in the quest to decrease dropout rates in Cambodia.

Kelly Grace is a doctoral student in comparative and international education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Sothy Eng is professor of practice in comparative and international education at Lehigh.

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