Taking evolution to mean progression or development, early childhood care and education is both an evolution and a cause for concern.
Let me first explain why ECCE is an evolution. Firstly, it is an evolution in terms of development. In Malaysia kindergarten/preschool was offered in the 1950’s by churches while child care came into existence in the 1980’s as alternative care when working women needed someone to look after their children.
Kindergarten/preschool was then for children to experience school life in a relaxed, friendly environment and to learn the rudiments of literacy and numeracy. But, psychologists knew for a very long time, the impact the first 5 years of a child’s life have on his/her development. Hence they coined the term, “formative years”. In spite of the findings of psychologists, the early years did not get much attention; child care and preschools were considered as two different entities and placed under different ministries, the former being the responsibility of welfare while the latter under the Ministry of Education.
In recent years, the nature and status of the first five years have evolved into a single entity known as early childhood care and education (popularly known as ECCE). For some countries or institutions, development is included and hence is known as early childhood development, care and education (ECDCE). Last year Malaysia established Jawatankuasa Khas bagi Mengawal Selia Secara Bersepadu Penubuhan dan Operasi Institusi Pendidikan Awal Kanak-kanak which is co-chaired by the Minister of Education and the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development. This set-up is to streamline the regulations and operations of childcare centres and preschools.
The evolution of child care and preschool is not merely in physical structure and operations. Neuroscientific findings have disclosed that, at birth a child had 100 billion neurons or brain cells which need interactions with human beings and the environment for the neurons to wire to form neural pathways. In short, for the brain to develop, children need good or positive experiences. Negative experiences such as maltreatment, stress and inappropriate learning experiences can alter the brain’s architecture leading to memory and learning impairment, physical health problems and mental disorder.
The neuroscientific findings have two important impacts on ECCE. Firstly, the findings led to a worldwide focus on and investments in ECCE by governments and society. Research findings of economists, in particular of James Hackman, a Noble Laureate in Economic Science, reveal the high returns of quality ECCE. This heightens further interest in ECCE among investors.
Malaysia, like the rest of the world, has begun investing in early childhood care and education. The Ministry of Education has set as its target 98% preschool enrolment by 2020; the reconsideration of this target seems probable in view of the difficulty in attaining this target.
The second impact of the neuroscientific findings is the importance of quality ECCE. Not only have the experiences of children in the first five years of their lives be positive and free from sustained or persistent of intense stress, the experiences provided must also enable the neurons to connect to form neural pathways. Neurons that are not utilized are pruned and they may be lost forever.
This implies that childcare providers and preschool teachers need to be knowledgeale and competent to provide children in their formative years with developmentally appropriate environments and activities or experiences for the neurons to wire up for brain development. The Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2030 explicitly states the provision for access to quality ECCE.
For preschool teachers to provide appropriate experiences for the developing brain, they need at minimum a Diploma in ECE. To ensure preschool teachers have the required knowledge and competencies, accredited DECE and BECE have to comply with the MQA programme standards enforced in 2015.
Cause for Concern
The need for young children to have access to quality ECCE has generated several concerns. Among them:
- Mushrooming of franchise and the jumping on the bandwagon
Economists have shown by their findings that investment in ECCE brings high returns. It is therefore, not expected that venturers and entrepreneurs would jump on the bandwagon. While some opt for franchising, others set up chains of childcare centres or preschools. The greatest concern is that these people have little or no knowledge of ECCE and their focus is on gain rather than on the optimal development of the child. Even children’s safety is comprised as they petition for childcare centres to be allowable up to the fifth floor. Parents, who want the best for their children but have little notion of what constitutes quality ECCE, may been using the erroneous criteria to judge the quality of ECCE. For instance, parents may base their judgment based on the number of awards an institution or franchise has accumulated.
- Quality in Training
For early childhood practitioners to be of quality, whether they are childcare providers or preschool teachers, they need quality lecturers/trainers and training programmes.
There are more than 20,000 in-service preschool teachers who do not have DECE. When the government announced the enforcement of DECE as the minimum qualifications for preschool teachers by 2020, institutions of higher learning and venturers perceive this as a golden business opportunity.
Colleges and universities which did not have early childhood education programmes quickly set up centres to train preschool teachers. In addition, new colleges are established just for DECE.
Owing to the rapid expansion of institutions for training preschool teachers, there is a dire shortage of lecturers specializing in early childhood education. It is not uncommon for the person-in-charge of the ECE programmes and the lecturers to be non-specialists in ECCE. Neither have they worked in early childhood settings. This can result in students not having the necessary knowledge and competencies to be effective preschool teachers.
Lacking in specialization in early childhood subjects, courses offered may not be pertinent to early childhood. For instance, instead of offering the course on Guiding Young Children, some institutions offer Guidance and Counselling, a course which will not equip early childhood practitioners with the competency to guide children, for instance to guide children who have problems adjusting to a new environment or have poor social skills or behavioural problems. Lecturers without the knowledge of a particular subject may be asked to read up books, e.g. on Observation and Assessment, to teach this topic.
- Divide between Children with Quality ECCE Experiences and Children without Quality ECCE Experiences
Research findings show that the gap in development between children with and without quality experiences widens with age. This is because the more complex neural pathways are built on the earlier ones. One of the axioms of ECCE is “Start early, start right”.
Though it not always true that the fee for child care and preschool education indicates the quality of these institutions, nonetheless quality early childhood care and education does incur cost. Low staff-child ratio, especially for the care of young children, and quality staff incur cost. This implies that children from impoverished homes or marginalized society can be deprived of quality ECCE and are thus at a disadvantage from an early age. This inequality needs to be addressed as early as possible. MOE has provided free preschool education, KEMAS and the Department of National Unity and National Integrity provide ECCE at low cost but there are still lots of disadvantaged children who do not have access to quality ECCE.