Early Childhood: the real foundation to education
When the Roosevelt Skerrit administration took the absolutely necessary step about two years ago to elevate the status of the early childhood education sub-sector to the position that it deserves, many persons were pleased. But in November 2014, as Dominica observes Early Childhood Education Month, we see that the process has, apparently, not gained momentum because not much has happened since.
This is unfortunate because the development of the early childhood education sector is absolutely important if the level of education in Dominica is to improve.
Former Jamaica Prime Minister Edward Seaga put the whole issue of the importance of quality early childhood development in perspective when he said in a speech at the Jamaica University of Technology. He said: "Any country without electricity is doomed because virtually all useful devices work with electrical power; any country without full literacy and numeracy is doomed because virtually everyone works with knowledge. We are intolerant of electrical blackouts, but we are tolerant when minds are shut down in the mental blackouts of illiteracy."
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 in mostly physically bad shape, 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 improving the current budget allocated to the early childhood education; currently it is much less than one per cent of the 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 has been so neglected that the rest of the chain, primary, secondary and tertiary, is in danger of collapse. With their 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. Then the system pays for the failure of the early childhood education system in many other ways: we are forced to allocate millions to law enforcement, prisons and hospitals; and more than six out of ten of the population of 20-29 years old, who are either unemployed or unemployable.
Nevertheless, the 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 education programmes, taxpayers can expect four dollars in benefits. In other words, the Dominican government would receive a four-to-one return on its investments if it invests in quality, not merely quantity, early childhood education. Instead the one per cent of the education budget that is currently going to early childhood education professionals have recommended a minimum of eleven per cent.
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 the 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, obviously to correct the deficiencies of Universal Secondary Education, the programme must be extended to that critical preschool period.
We have said this before but it is worth repeating that since Dominica continues to grapple with that rather protracted economic and social crisis, it is only natural that policy makers and the general public in particular, look towards schools for long-term solutions.
Because it is through the schools that the nation develops its citizens, shape the minds of the young, build the character of its future leaders and generally enhance its human capital. Without teachers, who are adequately compensated and motivated, it follows that the nation will be hard-pressed to achieve its objectives.
Hence, pre-school teachers, especially, have an awesome responsibility, which sadly, we only seem to recognise with words and 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. As we opined in an earlier editorial, even when we take the trouble to train early childhood education professionals at the highest level, with scarce tax payer's dollars, we allow their enthusiasm to wilt while we manage early childhood education on a meagre budget and few staff. We should be using a large part of the Petro Caribe fund on the development of the early childhood education sector where our return on this investment, measured in improved human capital, would be assured.
Only quality early childhood education can make significant change to social standards and reduce illiteracy among a vast majority of the population. An advocate of early childhood education, Dr Ralph Thompson, made similar observations in a recent speech at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in Kingston. He said: "No country can make overall progress if the vast majority of its citizens are kept in ignorance and poverty. Not in a democratic society. Demagoguery feeds on ignorance. The result will be either chaos or dictatorship."
Education, he said, makes people easy to lead but difficult to drive; easy to govern but impossible to enslave. It is our view that the real foundation of education is early childhood development.