Author: Errol Miller
The need to strengthen and improve early childhood education is one of the areas that seems to enjoy bipartisan support. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition highlighted this area in their Budget presentations, in which education took centre stage. In a subsequent discussion of the Budget Debate on the Breakfast Club Mrs Beverly Manley remarked that apart from early childhood education, she found discussion of other issues in education boring. It is necessary to place some perspective on this emphasis on early childhood education.
To begin with it is important to note that this is by no means the first time that early childhood education has been placed on the front burner of debate on the development of education. In this century the late Rev Henry Ward campaigned heavily in the 1930s for the development of early childhood education and pioneered several initiatives that commanded public support. Also, in 1964 when the JTA was founded early childhood education was the first project promoted by the Association, with support for the Chamber of Commerce, out of which the basic school movement became a community endeavour.
Following this the Bernard Van Leer Foundation working in conjunction with the Institute of Education, UWI, and led by the late Dudley Grant, pioneered a major effort in transforming many child-minding operations in backyards in low income areas into respectable educational efforts. UNICEF and the Child Development Centre, UWI has also made seminal contributions to the development of pre-school education.
As a result of leadership from these organisations and institutions and with widespread community, church and corporate support considerable progress has been made in pre-school education in Jamaica in the last 35 years. Currently approximately 84 per cent of children age four to six years are enrolled in some type of pre-school. This is a very high rate of enrolment for a so-called Third World country but it also reveals a sobering fact. Despite the very modest fees that prevail in most Basic Schools, about 16 per cent of children come from homes that are too poor to afford even these modest fees. These children have to await free primary education, beginning at age six years, before they can commence their education.
Another sobering fact is that more than sixteen per cent of six years old arrive at Grade One without mastering the readiness skills that are taught at the pre-school level. This suggests that a substantial number of children are attending pre-schools that are offering very poor quality education. In other words, these children are virtually no better off than those who attended no pre-school.
All the longitudinal research studies that has been done on pre-school education conclude that good early childhood education confers an advantage on children through primary and secondary schooling. Some studies even claim such benefits persist to the tertiary level. The current emphasis and proposed thrust in early childhood education is justified on the basis of its proven long term benefits and the weaknesses in the current provisions. At the same time it would be ill advised if the Government programmes adopt the position as if we were starting from scratch. A significant proportion of our children are benefiting from good early childhood education.
With this in mind it would be prudent if both political parties, in developing their policies and programmes for this area of education, did the following:
- Build on the progress that has been made over the last 35 years by drawing on the expertise and support of those who have laboured in the field even when it enjoyed only modest Government support.
- Target substantial resources to enrol the very poor in pre-schools and to improve the quality of those Basic Schools whose quality leave much to be desired.
- Sustain the investment for the time it will take to produce the dividends.
In all of this there is one great danger that needs to be recognised. Poor nutrition among pregnant women and malnutrition and under-nutrition of children from birth to five years could undermine and subvert most of the efforts that are expected from investment in early childhood education. Research done by the Faculty of Medicine has shown that malnutrition among children, from birth to five years, leaves a learning and behavioural deficit long after the malnutrition has been cured.
May 19, 1997