Investment in early childhood development has life-long returns

Wednesday September 30 2015

By Shafique Sekalala

Investments in nursery schools can improve children’s academic performance in later life and contribute to the overall quality of life in a country.

Research has shown that nursery schools, also known as Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes, can foster critical skills, boost the economy and bolster the workforce. Given the prevalence of poverty in Africa generally, and Uganda in particular, investing in nursery schools for disadvantaged children would, therefore, have a long-lasting positive impact on Uganda’s socio-economic status.

The last decade has yielded compelling evidence that programmes focused on the holistic development of young children boost earnings and reduce social spending for governments. According to research by Nobel Laureate James Heckman, the “rate of return for investments in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children is 7-10 per cent per annum through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime”.

In Uganda, many children face perennial obstacles to attain quality education due to lack of pedagogical support at home. It is crucial for the country to understand the importance of ECD to harness its unrealised potential and provide a good learning environment for young children.

Lack of quality ECD programmes has resulted in poor performance for many students as many of them are unable to catch up fast enough in primary schools. This can be seen in the poor education results in Uganda over the years. In 2011, the Uwezo Annual Learning Assessment Report showed that 9 out 10 of Primary Three pupils could not read a Primary Two level text.

Understandably, this trend has caused considerable concern among senior education officials. Early this year, Dr Mukasa Lusambu, assistant commissioner in the Basic Education Department said, “Results indicate that pupils who go through nursery perform better at primary than those who go straight to primary.
Government loses a lot of resources if children do not go through the system as planned. The government is already paying for them under Universal Primary Education programme. It shouldn’t be a problem to streamline it.”

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Therefore, believing that investment in ECD will lead to better results in the future, the Ministry of Education has opened up discussions to consider implementing a policy of having a nursery school in every primary school.

Opening an ECD centre in every primary school is a step in the right direction, but there are several challenges that need to be addressed for a successful rollout.

The greatest challenge is the shortage of adequate teachers and classrooms for ECD services. There are approximately 20,000 primary schools in Uganda, meaning at least 20,000 ECD centres will need to be established. If each ECD centre on average hires two ECD caregivers, the question to ask is: Do we have approximately 40,000 caregivers – the bare minimum of ECD professionals needed – to meet the increasing demand?

Studies show that the ideal student to teacher ratio is one teacher for every 17 children. Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world. And, with an average population growth rate of 3.2 per cent per annum, such a teacher-pupil ratio seems difficult to attain given the constrained resource envelope.

However, it is not all gloom and doom. Cognisant of this challenge, the Aga Khan Foundation, through its early childhood development programme, the Madrasa ECD Programme (MECP), has over the last two years established and obtained licensing for a fully-fledged independent ECD Teacher Training Institute.

The Madrasa ECD Institute (MECDI) aims at mitigating this huge skills gap that the country currently faces, and that will only grow worse going forward once the government rolls out its new ECD policy.

MECDI has trained over 350 ECD teachers – some of whom will be graduating on October 2, 2015 – but it is not possible for it to expand access to the much-needed ECD teacher training services without additional support from the government or other development partners.

There are also many other ECD training institutes out there contributing to addressing this challenge. However, it is noteworthy that perhaps only a few are recognised and licensed by the government.

Through effective government intervention, numerous children will have access to ECD services, particularly in the relatively poor rural areas. Without the necessary human, organisational and financial resources, this policy cannot be effectively implemented. Now is the time for all stakeholders to guarantee its success.

Mr Sekalala is the Programme Director, Madrasa Early Childhood Programme of Uganda

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