One cannot overemphasize the importance of a strong foundation upon which school systems should be built. In fact, there is room for improvement.
An important analogy exists between the foundation of a house and that of a school system. In building the foundation of a house, several components are built into it so that it can be more solid (firmer and more durable) to support the weight of the entire house. For example, whereas, concrete is an ideal material to handle the weight of a house, it is not very flexible. Therefore, steel reinforcing bars are placed into the concrete to help resist any bending or twisting caused by ground movement (Dietrich, 2013).
Similarly, in developing a more solid (more useful and reliable) foundation for a school system, not only should the school curriculum be given in-depth consideration, but that other key components should be taken into account. Importantly, these components together create a holistic design to the foundation. Consequently, they need to be solid in their design and development both individually and holistically in order to engender a more effective school system. At this point, it is imperative to view another key component of the foundation of a school system.
In my last article, I argued that school systems should be built on a solid foundation, from the perspective of a key component: a well-balanced or well-rounded curriculum–one, whose design transcends the four core school subjects or specific literacies (language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies) and incorporates significant aspects of human personality (the spiritual, moral, emotional, and aesthetic) to enhance students’ wellbeing.
Here, I revisit the premise, but state that school systems should be built on a more solid foundation, from the perspective of another key component: “Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).”
UNESCO (2022) defines ECCE as the period from birth to 8 years, that is, beyond preschool; up to the first four primary years. In contrast, the Saint Lucian Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Statistical Digest (2020) reveals that early childhood education (ECE) is the period from 0-4 years, that is, up to the pre-school or pre-primary years. The Digest further explains that there are two centres in Saint Lucia that constitute early childhood education: day-care and pre-school. Typically, day-care centres provide child care services to children 0-2 years old, while pre-school centres provide educational services to 3-4 year old children. In the context of the discussion, the distinction is of little significance. Rather, what is greater in importance is the question which follows.
Why is early childhood care and education so important? To shed light on this essential question, Firstly, it is worthwhile to view the structure of the education system of Saint Lucia, as revealed by the MOE’s Statistical Digest (2020): education in Saint Lucia follows a pattern similar to that in many education systems. Technically, early childhood care and education is the first tier in the hierarchy of the education system. It is followed by the primary school (otherwise called elementary school), which constitutes the infant level (K, G1, & G2) and junior level (G3, G4, G5, & G6); next, by the secondary school level (F1, F2, F3, F4, & F5) and, then, by the post-secondary or tertiary level of education–higher education (17+).
In this arrangement of a tier system, ECCE is the foundational tier, meaning that it sets the foundation so that the higher levels of education could rest upon it. It also means that one level must be accomplished or completed before another commences. It further means that irrespective of their interrelationship, each level must be undertaken separately from the other to maximize learning.
Let us delve deeply into the significance of early childhood care and education. What exactly is meant by the proposition that early childhood care and education sets the foundation for higher levels of education? The Ontario Early Years Study Final Report (1999) reveals that “the development of the brain in the early years of life, particularly the first three years, sets the base of competence and coping skills for the later stages of life” (p. 2). Further, “Brain development in the period from conception to six years sets a base for learning, behaviour and health over the life cycle” (p. 2).
What these findings highlight is that there are critical periods when a young child requires appropriate stimulation for the brain to establish the neural pathways in the brain for optimum development. These early critical periods include: binocular vision, emotional control, habitual ways of responding, language and literacy, symbols, and relative quantity. Many of these critical periods are over or waning by the time a child is six years old. To cite the above report, “There is disturbing evidence that children who do not receive the nutrition and stimulation necessary for good development in the earliest months and years of life may have great difficulty overcoming deficits later” (p. 6).
In particular, what implications do these findings have for the Saint Lucian Ministry of Education? As revealed by the Education Statistical Digest (2020), day-care centres are both government and privately owned. However, all pre-school centres in Saint Lucia are privately owned. Educationally, the pre-school situation looks dismal. It raises a perfectly legitimate question in light of what we now understand about brain development relative to learning. Are there sufficient, if at all, trained teachers in these private pre-school centers as there are in the public primary and secondary schools?
To improve the early years for young Saint Lucian children, particularly preschoolers, will require not only the commitment of private pre-school centres but, to a greater degree, that of the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education should be fully committed to ensuring that all our future citizens–children in both public and private centres–are able to develop their full potential; that, at least, the vast majority of pre-school teachers are fully trained to teach them.
According to the Digest, both day-care and pre-school centres are encouraged to follow the structured curriculum prescribed by the Early Childhood Services Unit of the Department of Education, Innovation and Gender Relations (DOEIGR). While the development of a structured curriculum is a wise investment, it should not be left to chance in any respect so that such a large number of preschoolers (3,459 as reported in the Digest for the academic year 2019/20, for example) would not be disadvantaged by poor schooling. Investment by the Ministry of Education in pre-school education is as important as its investment in the other levels of education. Investment has to be a high priority for all sectors of the Saint Lucian society. The Ministry of Education is by no means an exception.
Early childhood care and education (ECCE), with a focus on pre-school centres, requires much more than a structured curriculum if the Ministry’s aim is to build a firmer foundation so that the school system could produce a highly competent and well-educated population which, in turn, is necessary for a strong economy and democracy. Action now will put our children and our Saint Lucian society on a more solid foundation for a better future.