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La Educación
Número: (123-125) I,III
Año: 1996

Early Childhood Education: Past Policies and Current Reform

Early childhood education is not compulsory and is not within the formal education system. Efforts aimed at the development of a program for early childhood education dates as far back as the 1940s with programs at that time designed to give children of parents who could afford it, a “head start in the academics.” This view of pre-schools as “little primary schools” is still held by some today and impacts the programs in operation. Because of financial constraints, the government has been unable to make pre-school education a part of the formal education system so their operations have largely been as private enterprises. Recommendations to keep pre-schools as private enterprises were made as early as the 1930s because it was felt that government could not cope with the increased cost of its inclusion as part of the formal education system, and because expenditure on education by the colonial government was minimal. This policy was most evident in the Easter Report of 1934 to the Government of British Honduras. Easter advised that,
there can be no objection to the continuation of Infant classes as a private enterprise. Children below the age of six should not be allowed to attend school whether enrolled or not unless special accommodation and the teaching provision is made for them-not at government’s expense....
In the 1950s many denominational pre-schools established kindergarten classes. However, these attempts were stifled by the Educational Ordinance of 1962 when it reinforced that compulsory school age should be 5 to 14, “and the Department of Education emphasized that provision for teachers’ salaries did not include kindergarten or nursery schools.”1

During the early 1970s there was a proliferation of private and community pre-schools, many of which received support through UNICEF. The 1972-74 Digest of Educational Statistics recorded 23 “Private Kindergartens”, with an enrollment of 1,010 pupils, many operating on the philosophy of offering care and a safe environment for children of working mothers. As time passed, however, these centers have come under increased pressure (mostly because of parents’ and some teachers’ expectations) to gear the curriculum toward early literacy and numeracy. The fact that many pre-schools were being established demonstrated the need for a policy regarding the curricula and management. However, there is notable omission of any policy regarding pre-schools prior to 1979.

Formal action or policies came in 1979 with the establishment of a pre-school unit that received support from the Ministry of Education and UNICEF. The 1980-83 Development Plan promised to “implement a national program to improve and regulate preschools and to organize and implement the training of teachers for pre-schools.” This plan was put into effect in 1980 with the appointment of a coordinator whose primary responsibility was to conduct training for teachers through workshops and to develop materials for pre-schools across the country. However, formal training of teachers continues to be an issue. The Education Statistical Digest quoted a 1992 figure of 170 preschool teachers, but it failed to give the qualifications of these teachers. All indications are that the number of trained teachers in pre-schools is quite low and there are no policies in place to regulate this. In the soon-to-be-released policy on education, government has committed itself to a policy where no teacher will be allowed into the profession unless she or he is trained. The regulation does not affect pre-schools because pre-school education is not a formal part of the system and because the majority are privately run. Pre-schools are therefore left to operate with teachers who have received little or no formal training. This gives rise to variations in the quality of the programs offered in pre-schools.

Notwithstanding its policy to keep pre-school education outside of the formal system of education, perhaps rightly so, the government has made attempts to increase the level of access of pre-school education by establishing pre-school centers in many rural areas. The latest available statistics show an increase in the number of preschools from 26 in 1979 to 81 in 1992. Of the 81 centers, 5 were government owned, 24 were run by the community (receiving assistance from government), and 52 were privately run and financed. Of the 81 pre-schools, 35 are in the Belize District and only 4 in the Toledo District. There are 48 in urban cities and towns and 33 in rural areas. These centers provide spaces for just under 3,000 children of pre-school age representing a participation rate of approximately 26% of children in that age group.

In conclusion, pre-school education has received considerable recognition and support from the government since the 1980s with expenditure on pre-schools growing from $137,000 in 1985 to $486,000 in 1993. The belief held mostly by parents and some teachers is that pre-school is designed to give children a “head start.” Indeed this should be the case, but the “head start” should be in the form of readiness activities rather than coverage of materials that should be taught in Infant School. While policies are being developed to regulate the operation of pre-schools, the issue of quality remains a problem because of the differences in their management. Financial constraints make it impossible to adequately supervise these schools, and bringing pre-schools into the formal system seems impossible at this time. In his closing remarks at the National Symposium on Education in 1990, the then Minister of Education elucidated this point. He stated:
... take for instance, the inclusion of pre-school as part of the formal system of education throughout Belize: this is a major undertaking. Pre-school is an essential part of our education and a necessary grounding, and I believe that we have to continue with its development in an aggressive way. But first we must deal with the problems that face us in the primary educational system. Once we can settle those and really deliver a basic education for all, as we are trying to do for the compulsory school age group, then we can really address pre-school at a national level. (Musa 1990)
The Ministry of Education Policy for improving “Access, Efficiency and Quality” gives support to the operation of pre-schools but not as a part of the formal system. It states:
Government, being aware that the preconditions for equity in education are set in the experiences acquired during the child’s formative years, will accelerate its efforts at improving pre-school education and create an environment for increased participation of young children, particularly those from low socio-economic backgrounds. Strategies will include—increasing the number of places available particularly in disadvantages rural areas... developing and providing more relevant training for pre-school teachers, monitoring closely the transition from pre-school to the primary level and developing a national preschool education program. (Ministry of Education 8)
These statements resound many made in development plans over the past decade and a half. Any action taken to ensure that these policies are implemented would be a welcome change from the past.