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Early childhood education and the Church

Devon Dick

THIS MONTH is Child Month, this week is Education Week, and tomorrow will be Teachers' Day. It is therefore appropriate to examine the issue of education, and in particular, the role the Church has played and can play in early childhood education.

Early childhood education encompasses organised activities for children from the age of four to six; an age group, which, educators claim, is the most creative years of a child's life.

To cater to the needs of that stage of development there are basic schools, infant schools, infant departments and preparatory schools. An infant school is a pre-primary institution for which government has full responsibility for recurrent and capital expenditure including paying the teachers and maintaining the campus. On the other hand, an infant department is the pre-primary section of a primary or all-age school and falls under the supervision of the principal of that school and is usually on the same campus and often on the same building as the primary or all-age school of which it is a part.

As with an infant school, the government undertakes all responsibilities for capital and recurrent expenses of this department. Preparatory schools are neither government nor community schools but are rather independent bodies falling under the supervision of the Registrar of Independent Schools. There are about 26 Church-established ones with the Roman Catholics being most outstanding with responsibility for 19 of them.

It is however, the basic schools that cater to most children in that age group, and it is claimed that it all began when co-founder of the Meadowbrook High School, Rev. Henry Ward, founded the first such school in Islington, St Mary, in 1938 because he wanted to save the scores of children left unprotected while their parents were at work. And through the instrumentality of Henry Ward, a committee was set up by the government that studied infant education in Jamaica and made recommendations, which led to the establishment of an infant centre in Kingston. Public opinion was so stirred concerning needy children, that many villages and towns followed the Islington example by establishing infant centres, which later became known as basic schools. The Church and other charitable or voluntary organisations sponsored many of these centres.

Basic schools are community institutions in which the community establishes and sponsors them. They fall into two categories namely Recognised and Unrecognised, with the Recognised ones receiving financial assistance from the government for teachers' salary subsidy, nutrition subsidy, appliance, furniture and building grants, while the Unrecognised ones receive no financial assistance.

In both cases, the schools charge fees to help pay the teachers and are supervised by the Early Childhood Unit. The basic school programme was enhanced by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation of the Netherlands, which in 1966 initiated the first early childhood project with the helpful guidance of Dudley R.B. Grant that helped to train teachers, develop a suitable curriculum and designed proper aids to make the curriculum effective. This was further enhanced by the Ministry of Education's Five Year Plan (1978-1983).

Another boost for basic schools was the European Economic Development Fund, which provided accommodation for 3,000 pupils by building 28 new basic schools and upgrading 75 older structures between 1978-1983. The North Coast Project (1987-1994) has helped to upgrade the skills of the teachers who are now far more qualified than in previous years. According to The History of the Basic School Movement in Jamaica, by 1999 at least eight out of every ten Jamaican children attend basic schools, and by the end of 1997 some 3,500 teachers had been trained to look after some 130,000 children in 1,700 Basic Schools. According to the Ministry of Education's 2000 Report, the Church was responsible for 336 recognised basic schools.

There are still too many Unrecognised basic schools in the system and the Church in collaboration with the government should ensure that all basic schools become Recognised.

The enrolment in early childhood education is 94 per cent, which is very good but the Church should be part of a drive to encourage full enrolment or at least 99 per cent. Finally, the revelation by the Minister of Finance and Planning, Dr Omar Davies, that there is a disproportionate allocation of the education budget to the University of the West Indies when compared to early childhood has caused many to call for a reversal. Tertiary education is important but it cannot supersede early childhood education. The society through the government needs to assign more funds to this basic level of education.

Education is a means of social control, social mobility and moral upliftment must and this must begin at the level of early childhood education. The Church must continue to play her role along with other social partners in this noble enterprise.

The Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church.

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