Time for real action in early childhood education
About two years ago, the Roosevelt Skerrit administration took the bold and absolutely necessary step to elevate the status of the early childhood education sub-sector to a position that it deserves.
When we commented on that initiative then, we stated that we hoped that these announcements were much more than smoke and mirrors, much more than talk and that policy was being driven by bold, robust action.
So far our hopes have not been satisfied because very little significant action has followed the statements of the Minister of Education and Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit. After all allocating space for early childhood education in underutilized primary schools is merely scratching the surface: much more needs to be done, urgently.
Undoubtedly, the early childhood education sub-sector is in dire need of attention. These privately-owned institutions (we've been told there are about 70 in Dominica) are, mostly, in bad shape physically; they are overcrowded, under-resourced, and supervised by teachers who are short of training and are paid less than domestic workers.
Indeed, government can begin to take the first step putting its money where its mouth is by increasing the current budget allocated to the early childhood education; currently it is much less than one per cent of the total amount allocated to the Ministry of Education.
The point is, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and over time early childhood education has been so neglected that the rest of the chain- primary, secondary and tertiary- is in danger of collapse. With weak early-childhood preparation, the large number of children can neither read nor write at the end of their school life. Education officials estimate that more than fifty per cent complete five years of secondary education but do not attain the numbers and quality of examination passes that would take them into good jobs or directly into universities and colleges. Then the system covers the cost of the failure of the early childhood education system in many other ways: we are forced to allocate millions to law enforcement, prisons and hospitals. Additionally, more than six out of ten of the population of 20-29 year- olds are either unemployed or unemployable.
Nevertheless, the results of research to assist us in justifying the benefits of quality early childhood education has been staring us in the face for some time. For example, researchers at America's National Institute of Early Education (NIEE) indicated more than a decade ago that for every dollar spent on high quality early childhood education programmes, taxpayers can expect four dollars in benefits. In other words, the Dominica government would receive a four-to-one return on its investment if it invests in quality, not merely quantity, early childhood education. Early childhood education professionals have recommended that a minimum of at least eleven per cent of the Ministry of Education's budget should go to the early childhood education sub-sector.
According to the NIEE researchers, children who attended high quality preschools demonstrate significantly higher mental test scores than control groups, were twice likely to attend higher education programmes and generally displayed better cognitive functioning, academic skills, educational attainment and social adjustment.
As we contended earlier, the behaviour and academic potential of a 15 year old is largely determined by the quality of the education that he receives from birth and later through the early childhood education system. Studies have shown that the most critical period in the development of a child's brain occurs in the first six years, the so-called preschool years. We can further argue that while the current focus on reading and numeracy in the primary school is positive, to correct the deficiencies of Universal Secondary Education, the programme must be extended to include that critical preschool period.
Hence, pre-school teachers, especially, have an awesome responsibility, which sadly, we only seem to recognise with words alone; not with adequate salaries, working conditions or social status. We do not recruit our best minds to become pre-school teachers, we do not celebrate their accomplishments and we do not compensate them in accordance with their value to society. Even when we take the trouble to train early childhood education professionals at the highest level, with money from our Treasury, we allow their enthusiasm to wilt away while we continue to manage early childhood education throughout the districts of Dominica with a one-woman unit. Are we then serious about improving early childhood education?
We need early childhood education institutions that are up to standard and supervised by teachers who are specifically trained to teach children of that age group. Sitting them in in primary schools without playrooms is definitely not an adequate response to the situation.
The point is, if we improve the early childhood education system we may not solve all our social and economic problems right away but we can be assured that we would be building the foundation for a better society in the next two decades.