by Keeran Sivarajah. First published in The Edge 4 Nov 2013

 

An extremely capable friend of mine recently explored a position as a teacher in several preschools, but had to turn down the job offers she received. “The salaries offered were not sustainable,” she said, shocking me with figures that would have instantly qualified her for BR1M assistance.

On a similar note, I often meet parents who are willing to take out bank loans and spend their life savings on a tertiary education abroad for their children, but are hesitant to pay a premium for a better kindergarten.

These examples point to a widely held misconception in Malaysian society: that preschool is not as important as later phases of education.

In fact, the converse is true: the effects of a high quality kindergarten experience are tremendous. A study carried out on a pre-school program in the United States in the 1960s showed that adults who had attended a high-quality kindergarten were more likely to own a home at age 40 and less likely to be divorced or incarcerated. A recent study by Harvard University found evidence that having a high quality teacher in kindergarten is associated with earning US$1,000 more per year in adulthood. High performing education systems around the world, such as New Zealand and Finland, invest heavily in their early childhood education programs.

Given its significant impact, there is growing excitement about the importance of preschool education as a powerful tool to alleviate poverty. Children from low-income families who do not have access to high quality early childhood education are often placed at a disadvantage long before they even set foot in school. Over time, the gap in achievement levels between them and their more affluent peers tends to increase.

With the recent budget announcement, education has once again become the government’s largest expenditure. While this demonstrates commitment to the goal of a highly educated society, there is a need for greater rigour and deeper analysis in the allocation of these funds. Beyond glaringly obvious solutions such as installing better governance structures to avoid losses amounting to billions of ringgit through school security initiatives, we need to ask ourselves a simple question – what do current spending patterns tell us about the government’s educational priorities?
A cursory look at the latest budget reveals that preschool forms an extremely small fragment of the overall education spending. Despite the government’s stated goal of 100% enrolment in preschool by 2020, preschool education is still far from being an overall priority, especially compared to primary, secondary and tertiary education.

Beyond this, one of the main gaps in the National Education Blueprint relates to early interventions, targeting children between 0-4 years of age. Early childhood education is not, and should not be limited to preschool. Research indicates that the gap in achievement begins extremely early in life. A recent study by Stanford University found that between the ages of 18 and 24 months, children from affluent families learned 30% more words than their less affluent peers. While the expansion of childcare is cited in the blueprint as a longer term goal, research has consistently shown that this should be an immediate concern for any country.

In Finland, children have a universal “right to childcare”, entitling every child to high quality childcare until the age of 6. In the United States, organizations such as Nurse-Family Partnership work with at-risk mothers from pregnancy, offering health related assistance, but also encouraging chatting to the child and book reading, both proven to be powerful predictors of reading proficiency in later years. Malaysia’s stated focus on preschools without equal priority placed on earlier interventions is too little, too late – by the first day of kindergarten, many children will already be left behind.

At a world famous kindergarten in the town of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, three preschoolers are deep in discussion on how they are going to create a map of their city. “All cities have a square, so let’s start with that,” one of them says. “That’s how people will know where to go.” Halfway through the work, one of the kindergarteners realizes that the people in their city don’t have electricity, and promptly introduces a power station and electrical wires. The map the three kindergarteners finally produce is complete with roads, a sewage system, parks and electricity. In the words of one observer, “If four year olds can do this, imagine what 14 year olds can do!”

All too often, incidences pertaining to racially incendiary statements by school leaders and the use of school grounds as abattoirs dominate the national discourse on education. These occurrences are salient, highly emotive and in many instances, important. However, they have typically overshadowed more critical issues with far reaching implications; the promise and potential of high quality early childhood education is passing us by. Perhaps channelling our efforts and energy into more meaningful debates can lend much needed credibility to our country’s educational narrative, amongst politicians and policymakers alike.

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Keeran Sivarajah is a postgraduate student at Harvard University. He is a co-founder of Teach For Malaysia and an Associate of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. He can be reached at keeran.sivarajah@gmail.com

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