Nursery schools and Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres have always provoked a love-hate relationship from the public. Most reservations stem from its structure especially its very early morning reporting hours for the children.
However, with all its shortcomings, these centres are a necessary evil for parents and children who are now in limbo following a decision by the Ministry of Education to keep kindergartens on lockdown until the current pandemic passes. Parents, kindergarten owners and other stakeholders are now forging a way to keep the young minds learning.
Unable to cope
Before the lockdown on schools, Gloria Nankya, a mother of twins, would send her four-year-olds to Bright Star Kindergarten, an ECD in her neighbourhood in Kyengera. They were in Baby class.
Being a working mother, she would pay an extra fee to the kindergarten for the twins to remain in the daycare centre upto 5:30pm when she would finish work to pick them up. On Saturdays, they would stay at the daycare centre upto 4pm when she picked them off after her work.
“I have had bad experiences with house maids in the past, so I decided I would just have the twins in a school. They were safer, well taken care of and they would also get time to be with other children and at the same time, learning. During the lockdown, I would stay with them since I was also working from home. However, trouble started when I resumed commuting to work. It became a real burden,” she sheds light about how important ECD centres are to her.
Since her children’s school was still closed, Nankya decided to temporarily leave them under the care of her neighbour, hoping the centre will be opened sooner than later. Nonetheless, weeks stretched into months and she eventually decided to take the twins to her mother’s home in Nakilebe, where they live to date. She usually visits them over the weekend.
“I thought that the government would open schools at the beginning of this year, which would get some weight off my shoulders but I was shocked to learn that this will not be happening soon,” Nankya says, adding that to her, school is not only a place to learn but a place parents like her can trust to have their children safe and well taken care of as they do their work.
On the other hand, Hassan Serumaga is concerned about the time their children have spent out of school, and how this will affect them.
“The children have already lost an entire year. They are getting older and yet they are not making any academic progress which is going to affect them. Now, if they sit home again for the whole of this year, those are two wasted years and yet as parents, we have not been equipped on how to keep them learning at home. They are just playing and getting older,” he says.
Children need early education
Judith Mwebesa, the proprietor of Little Angels Pre-School in Kajjansi, has been in the school business for 12 years now and she does not remember any time when the situation was this hopeless for people in the ECD business.
“By the time they closed us, we were just getting into the new term. I had just renovated and repainted the school using a loan from a friend and all the savings I had. Some parents had paid the fees but the majority had not. So, as I talk, I am in debt and I have been struggling since the lockdown to make ends meet. I do not know what next to do now,” she explains.
Pre-school education in Uganda
In 2016, Uganda launched the National Integrated Early Childhood Development (NIECD) Policy with a major goal of providing direction and guidance to all sectors for quality, inclusive, coordinated and well-funded early childhood development services and programmes.
Besides the policy, there is also an early childhood development learning framework developed by the Nation Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) meant to be followed by all early childhood development centres. This focuses on the outcomes and competences children are supposed to achieve as they go through the three years of pre-primary level. Knowledge and values are to be acquired by children in; personality and emotional relationship, communication, language and literacy, problem-solving and mathematical concepts, knowing and understanding of the world, Physical development and Creative development. Parents and schools fear that these values will be missed by children as pre-primary schools remain closed.
According to UNICEF, only a tenth of children between three and five years are enrolled in formal pre-primary education, with preschools predominantly privately-run and located in urban areas. Community-based ECD centres receive very little state funding, are under-equipped, often lack the bare essentials such as clean water and toilets, and are managed by untrained volunteers.
Is preschool education important?
Ismail Musoke, an instructor at Madrasa Early Childhood Development Institute, notes that ideally, every child should go through Early Childhood Development.
“There are established learning experiences, competences achieved by the child for each of the three years of preschool. So, when children are rushed through ECD or if they do not go through it, they lose out on learning important things. We teach children indirectly through play to discover themselves and be in position to understand concepts in primary school and the rest of their education,” Musoke points out.
Evelyn Kharono, a counselling psychologist and child development expert, says: “One of the things that are developing in the life of a child at this age are psychomotor skills. Their little fingers and feet are learning to hold and grip things, so they need to exercise these skills at the time.”
Children should be going to preschool to learn how to socialise with other children away from home, to learn how to be independent away from the parents for a while, learn a few elementary things like writing, a little numeracy and literacy, dancing, singing and drawing, she adds. However, some preschools barely have a compound and space where children can play.
Ezekiel Murungi, a preschool teacher, also adds that though children are able to learn these skills and values from home, the home environment is not enabling.
“To achieve these competences, you need a consistent supervisor to see to it that they stimulate the child in these different areas. You need an enabling environment that conditions the child to learn. As far as I know, many parents do not have the time to even supervise their children’s homework. Some do not even know what and how they can help these children to learn from home,” he says.
Due to the school closures, the child friendly spaces at Omugo Refugee Settlement and Impevi Settlement run by World Vision to provide early childhood development education to children between three - eight years old in these refugee camps, were consequently closed. However, Leah Akankwasa, a child protection facilitator with World Vision, shares that they had to look for an alternative.
“We started doing home-based learning for early childhood education. We do door to door education by finding children at their homes,” she shares, elaborating further that before starting this in September when schools opened for candidate classes, they first had tutors from Primary Teacher Colleges training and equipping the ECD caregivers with skills on how to do door to door teaching. These were also trained in how they can make the home environment friendly for learning.
“We gave them basic learning materials that are in line with the ECD Framework and protective gear as SOPS. Every morning at 8:30, seven of our ECD caregivers go out with their materials to homes; two each in each home. At the homes, a number of 10 - 15 children are gathered to be taught by the teacher, following all the SOPs. The caregivers set up a classroom with their materials such as manila paper and have a lesson which takes between 30-45 minutes. We have one lesson per day,” Akankwasa says.
The next day, the caregivers go to different homes until they return to where they started. The caregivers meet about 40 children in the settlement every week and so far, 1,355 children have benefitted from the arrangement in both settlement camps.
“On top of this, we also offer home-based psychosocial support to those children but also include the adolescents. This we do in our afternoon sessions. This is because children have experienced trauma from abuse, violence, and early pregnancy during the lockdown and it was important that we bring these services to them,” she adds.
This comes at no cost to the parents but they are asked to provide space, and make teaching aids and play materials from local materials, which they have been trained to do. On the other hand, Alfred Opio, the founder and CEO of KAINO Africa, notes that parents can step into teacher’s shoes by firstly, knowing what their children have been studying in nursery schools. They can then go ahead to create time for their children and take them through a few guided learning moments.
“We should go out and look for teaching guides that can guide us on how to conduct a lesson on Literacy (reading and writing) and numeracy while at home with our children. Identify moments when your child is in the mood to learn: learn the rhymes together, sing together, play together, it will be fun,” says Opio.
For parents who go to work, he advises that finding a tutor within the community at an affordable price can help. “They do not need to be experienced; it could even be a relative, neighbour, or even a friend. As long as they have the right materials to use, a lot can be achieved. When you return in the evening, find out what has been taught. At the beginning of the week, go through the week’s content to understand the depth of what your child is to cover,” he says.