Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Knock heads on early childhood schooling

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2016 | 8:00 AM

Recently I had the opportunity, along with the leader of the Opposition, to meet with the chairman, some directors and executive officers of the Early Childhood Commission.

The fact that the meeting was requested by the new board was a refreshing departure from the narrow tribalism often evident when there is a change of administration.

There is a hidden conceit among many in political life (and even more so our rabid followers) that progress can only come from one's own side.

The truth is that many areas of national life - and notably health, education and national security - are so crucial and fragile that there will be no progress without consensus and continuity. And anyhow, in the way public administration flows, most of the sensible things the Holness regime has brought about in the last six months are carry-overs of initiatives long before in gestation.

So it is good that a partnership of all interests is being envisaged in the area of early childhood education. Here are some of the shared and agreed areas of that meeting.

 

COMBINING SECTORS

 

There is at last an explicit recognition of the imperative to connect the early childhood, special education and parenting sectors. They ought to be combined under a revised and unified piece of legislation and amply resourced. The earlier physical, mental and emotional pathologies are diagnosed and treated, the more cost-effective and successful the outcomes will be.

And with casual parenting and weak family relationships, the earliest structured time to inform and encourage new parents to bond with child and school is at the early childhood level.

We must work towards several specific targets. The first must be to equip a diagnostic facility with proper referral prospects in each parish along with three professionally staffed regional centres where severe maladies can be treated.

By 2018, all infant and basic schools should have at least one trained early childhood teacher and access to a qualified special education teacher, paid not a subsidy, but commensurate to their level of qualification and expertise.

Then, conscious that likely more than 30 per cent of our little ones have inadequate or inappropriate nutrition that will cause irreversible difficulties in later life, the breakfast and lunch programme, recently increased to close to 150,000 per day, must be extended this year to include more local produce, enough protein, and less sugar and salt.

It is a national reproach that the agricultural sector has been unable - in fact is not even trying - to supply sufficient, affordable commodities for the School Feeding Programme.

 

CRITICAL FUNCTIONS

 

Learning to be and learning to learn are the critical functions of early childhood education - not to become accomplished readers and maths brains at four years old. Parents have to be taught the correct markers of success for their children. As a member of parliament, I am weary of being asked to contribute to extra lessons and the purchase of eight or ten back-to-school books for basic-school students.

With declining attendance at Sabbath and Sunday schools, contrary media and cultural stimuli and few two-parent families, the early childhood institution, by default, has become the primary institution of wholesome socialisation for the majority of our little children.

So these schools are the first and best point of institutional intersection to promote the 2030 vision; the behavioural standards, the values and attitudes, the sense of self-worth, the generosity of spirit which must be modeled and taught.

While it is necessary to register more of our basic schools as the Early Childhood Commission plans this year, this process will ensure more infrastructural integrity than instructional appropriateness. The two must go together, but the second is the harder and more urgent task.

Trisha Williams Singh, the Early Childhood Commission chair, is willing to listen, to share and to endow the sector with her infectious energy. Let us ensure that this focus as well as that of the admirable Church, civic, diaspora and private-sector support, is not frustrated by futile notions of freeness and upside-down priorities that place remediation above foundational development.

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman for education. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.