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EDITORIAL - Enough of the early childhood insanity

Published:Monday | March 26, 2012 | 3:00 AM

Gary 'Butch' Hendrickson, the chairman of Continental Bakery Company (National bakery), doesn't run his successful enterprise by perpetuating mistakes. That would be insane.

By that measure, what Jamaica allows to happen in early-childhood education is, although Mr Hendrickson doesn't put it that way, insanity. It ought not to continue.

Or, as Mr Hendrickson declared: "Enough is enough! We have to start looking after our children and take the pressure off the early-childhood system. If we don't do this, then primary education comes under pressure."

Mr Hendrickson is, therefore, putting $30 million in cash and kind into Crayons Count, the Deika Morrison-led initiative to provide colouring books, crayons and other learning material to early-childhood institutions. This newspaper supports the project and we hope others in the private sector will too.

But the madness in Jamaica's early-childhood education sector is deep and systemic. It needs far more than even very good initiatives like this one to repair it fully. Robust, concerted policy action by the Government is essential.

Poor learning conditions

In that critical period up to age five, education/learning stimulation in Jamaica is delivered primarily at more than 2,000 so-called basic schools. But these community institutions are in mostly physically bad shape, overcrowded, under-resourced, with teachers who are short of training and, despite government financial support for many, underpaid.

Indeed, the Jamaican Government allocates a mere three per cent ($2.1 billion) of its education budget to the early-childhood sector, or around $8,500 a child. The tertiary system, on the other hand, gets 15 per cent of the budget.

This newspaper, of course, recognises the importance of tertiary education, but like Wesley Hughes, the financial secretary, believes that given the fiscal constraints, and the problems elsewhere in the system, new and creative ways have to be found to fund universities and for their students to finance their courses.

Building on weak foundation

The point is that the weak foundation upon which Jamaica's education is constructed manifests itself throughout the system. For instance, a third of the children who attend basic schools are ill-prepared to start primary education.

At grade four, with their weak early-childhood preparation, only half are fully numerate and 30 per cent have not mastered all the inventories for literacy. At high school, after a significant dropout rate, merely a fifth of the students complete five years of secondary education with the numbers and quality of examination passes that would take them into good jobs and directly into universities.

The accumulated effect of these failures includes $15 billion spent annually on remedial efforts; the 400,000, or 60 per cent of Jamaicans 20-29, who are either unemployed or not in the labour force; and 220,000 youths aged 15-19 who are neither in school nor in jobs.

This is a clear call for the rebalancing of the education budget, first to find the estimated $7 billion a year required to fix early-childhood education. We would start by slicing, say, 30 per cent from the tertiary budget, while searching for the rest of the budget for additional sums. Further, we would recommend that over the next three years, all allocations from the CHASE Fund go to the early-childhood sector.

The bottom line: The early-childhood madness must stop now.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.