Courtesy - The Island By Douglas King
The 22nd annual Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture this year was presented by Narada Warnasuriya, former Vice Chancellor University of Sri Jayawardenapura. His topic, ‘Some reflections on Pre-school Education in Sri Lanka’ was far reaching as this essential component in education has not received the attention that it deserves. "The years from 3-5 are especially important for the achievement of key milestones in language acquisition, socialization and personality development." The National Survey of Child Development (2010) estimated that there were over 12,353 preschools with over half a million children. Three northern district were not included and it is likely that a number of schools were not registered for various reasons. Allowing for 15,000 schools and an average of three teachers at each school, this might indicate around 40-50 thousand teachers working in these centres. No accurate figures can be given as to the qualifications or experience of these teachers, but it can be assumed that a large number have no training or very minimum qualifications. Allowing for an attrition rate of only 5% would imply that at least 2000 new teachers are required each year. Where are these new teachers coming from?
In the main urban centres there are many private colleges offering courses and qualifications in Early Childhood Education. The majority of these are part time requiring attendance only for 1 or 2 days at weekends over a period ranging from 3 months to one year. This enables employed teachers to pursue a qualification, as well as giving teacher/lecturers from other institutions extra income through weekend work. Students completing these courses receive diplomas, but as to the quality of study and achievement there is little or no regulation. Failures are minimal and many such courses are financially very advantageous for the institutions which are essentially businesses. Another popular way to achieve a qualification is through the network of Montessori schools affiliated to the recognised Australian, British or American Montessori institutes. To obtain the qualification students usually work as assistant teachers while at the same time studying the formal aspects of Montessori education. This arrangement gives the school not only free teachers, but also a considerable income from the "course" fees. Only a minority of pre-schools in the country follow strict Montessori guidelines, so many of the graduates of these courses do not possess the broader and more useful Early Childhood Education content. No reliable figures are available as to the number of courses or students attending these courses.
By far the largest and most recognized Early Childhood Education courses are conducted by the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) where well over 2000 students are registered for one of the three certificate or diploma courses offered. However, the completion rate for these courses is often less than 50%, either due to some mature students taking the courses purely out of interest and others who find the independent distant learning too difficult. The OUSL is to be commended for conducting these courses and giving many students and teachers an opportunity to receive official qualifications through the convenience of distance study at a very affordable fee. Education is a high priority for President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his vision of Sri Lanka becoming the "Educational Hub" of South Asia. In January 2010 the University Grants Commission initiated a "Subject Review Report" on the OUSL Department of Early Childhood Education. The full report was made available on the Internet. The review team comprised three professors from other universities and was "based on the Self Evaluation Report (SER) submitted by the Department of Early Childhood and Primary Education (ECPE) and supported by the information gathered from the three-day site visit made to the department".
Early Childhood Education is a highly specialized area and those holding academic qualifications in primary, secondary and tertiary education in general do not possess the "skills, attitude and knowledge" necessary to teach in preschools or to direct and participate in the training of such teachers. This is not to belittle their expertise but to question their suitability for imparting education for the 3-5 years age group. An effective pre-school teacher in the main does not teach but provides multifarious experiences whereby the child can be involved in opportunities for intellectual, aesthetic, social and physical activities according to maturational levels. In this respect the teacher is imparting knowledge and skills only indirectly. Music, drama, literacy, numeracy, art, craft, physical education, dance, religion, social skills, assessment, health and parental involvement are all part of the necessary skills and application needed for quality preschool teaching. If it is to be expected that qualified teachers have these important skills, then surely those that are to teach students must also be similarly equipped. Theoretical expertise can only be useful when applied to practice. It may be that "one gram of experience is worth one kilogram of theory".
The Subject Review Report referred to earlier is an interesting document and the three authoritative professors have made an important contribution to the content and value of the OUSL courses and recommendations for improvements. Part of their review relied on the Self Evaluation Report (SER) but however sincere this may have been, the limited professional staffing and self-interest does militate against some aspects of being objective. In addition, three days on-site assessment of the three main Centres, can only offer a superficial overview especially when conducted by distinguished academics but without deeper understanding of Early Childhood Education. "The administrative Head of Early Childhood and Primary Education has a doctoral degree and considerable experience as a senior member of the faculty in the Department of Secondary and Tertiary Education prior to her present appointment". Apart from her current responsibilities she also "supervises M Ed, M Phil and Ph D students in other departments of the faculty." No staff members conduct research related to the Early Childhood Education Department. Despite her considerable hard work, commitment and efforts to develop the three courses, three model schools and quality of instruction, this has to a great extent been delegated to other staff members. According to the report "the bulk of the academic work…..writing and moderating lessons, teaching in day schools, setting and marking of assignments, and observation of teaching practice is the responsibility of the senior lecturer and three probationary lecturers". Each of these staff members coordinates a programme, but it is questionable if they are qualified or experienced in Early Childhood Education . Three other project assistants without postgraduate qualifications in fields relevant to the Department hold temporary, short-term appointments.
Ideally the three pre-schools operated by the Department should be models of good practice as examples for students to visit and learn from. The Report is critical of the main Supipi preschool. "Its claim to be a teaching laboratory appears to lack credence…" The Resource room is not functioning and the outdoor play equipment is inadequate. As to the school itself it is essential that the classrooms, curriculum and materials are representative of a high standard of practice. Some while back the Department initiated a full week of in-service workshops for teachers of the model schools and other staff members to improve their understanding and skills in Early Childhood Education. These were conducted by a highly experienced and qualified professional from the UK and were considered successful in upgrading knowledge and application. The Subject Review Report reviewed eight aspects of the Department and the courses it offered. The key areas of Curriculum; Teaching, learning, assessment; Student progress and achievement, were rated as only "satisfactory" rather than good or excellent. The Report made 16 recommendations for improvement and if these are acted upon the benefits eventually will be felt by preschools and the children where students on these courses will be teaching.
In the conclusion of his lecture Narada Warnasuriya suggested "the creation of a well equipped National Centre for Pre-school Education with a network of regional centres". At present there are no regular publications in Sri Lanka for pre-school teachers.
This Centre could produce a monthly Early Childhood Magazine in three languages to enable teachers to gain ideas and keep in touch with developments in this field. A well equipped resource centre where commercial materials can be displayed as well as workshop and lecture rooms offering relevant seminars and short courses.
It is surprising that the Early Childhood Education department at the OUSL has not produced a range of DVD multi-media resources which could include lectures (in three languages) as well as videos showing diverse preschool activities and various teaching styles. These can be linked to theory thus making it more relevant. A single recordable DVD costs less than Rs 20 and producing them no longer requires professionals with expensive equipment. (See www.youtube.com/5education) With so many teachers now having access to the Internet, it seems a simple and obvious way for some meaningful distant learning to take place. The temporary curriculum books for students on OUSL courses are produced in-house and pages simply stapled together between flimsy covers. The content may be relevant (albeit there are some grammatical, spelling, and other errors), but the design, printing and lack of illustrations contributes to their unattractiveness. Compare these with the beautifully designed materials in Singapore and other countries, which engages you and encourages you to read and study.
Is it reasonable to expect that Early Childhood Education courses for duration of one year or less with only a minimum of face-to-face contact, can equip a teacher with the knowledge, attitude and skills required? Many of these courses necessitate a considerable amount of self-study and unguided superficial reading of texts. Many courses are English medium and it is doubtful if some of the students have a sufficiently high standard of English to readily understand either the lectures or reading material. With only limited contact time, the opportunities for discussion, questions and practical application are severely limited. This is also exacerbated by poor conversational skills in English. At present no university or institution offers degree level courses in Early Childhood Education, despite it being a major aspect of the education system involving over 500,000 children. The University of Peradeniya has a well established Education Faculty but no courses in Early Childhood Education despite the fact that a large pre-school on the campus can be seen from the department’s building. The neglected poor state of the play area may reflect further shortcomings. In contrast Singapore has several universities where Early Childhood Education can be studied to Doctoral level and model preschools for students to experience. In many developed countries it is a requirement that senior teachers at preschool centres have a minimum of an undergraduate degree and often a graduate degree.
All too often preschools are seen as places where children cut, colour and paste, learn the alphabet and sing some nursery rhymes. Parents and even some professionals see a group of smiling, busy children filling pages in workbooks or all producing an identical item of art or craft, partly made by teachers, as being the observable sign of a good preschool. Many are willing to pay high admission and monthly fees for such schools. Unfortunately, even well qualified preschool teachers are poorly paid compared to salaries in government schools. Until this belief changes there is little incentive for schools or teachers to reflect on or be critical of current practice.
As there is no single authority for Early Childhood Education and schools are a mixture of private, NGO, religious and local government initiatives, it is difficult to see how change can come about. It requires leadership, creative thinking and innovation. Prof. J.E. Jayasuriya’s concerns as Chairman of the National Education Commission fifty years ago, about the quality and availability of pre-schools did not lead to action. Fifty years later the same issues are being discussed and his views seem to have currency in both theory and practice.
The author is currently honorary Education Director of the Early Childhood Education Centre at Hampstead International School, Kandy. This model Centre for around 80 children from all sections of the community, is visited by many teachers to gain a better insight into good practice. Douglas King D.Ed has many years of teaching, lecturing and consulting in Early Childhood Education in several developed and developing countries. He has written extensively on Education and published books for use in pre-school.