ECE programmes include any type of learning programme that serves children between 0-8 years old and is designed to improve later social and school performance. Since this is the period of the greatest growth and development of the brain at its fullness, the learning is done by well-trained care givers or teachers.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the early education system all over the world grew substantially. In Tanzania, ECE grew tremendously in the last 17 years, after the Education and Training Policy (ETP) which was endorsed in 1995, recognised ECE as part of primary education, and provided a directive that all public primary schools should have pre-primary activities and classrooms.
ETP (1995) further provided directives on preparations of teachers for pre-primary classes, management of pre-primary education as well as encouraging participation of private sector in early childhood education through investment in kindergartens/pre-primary schools.
A drive from this policy as well as socio-economic and political strategic shift from centralised economy to liberal economy allowed the majority of Tanzania children to have access to some form of early childhood education.
Most of the ECE centres were opened up by public, individuals, non government organisations and faith based organisations. However, 90 per cent of these centres were concentrated in urban areas and were facing various challenges.
Though ETP (1995) has encouraged starting up pre-primary education centres by public and private investors, ECE is still considerable ‘not important’ which has hindered the public from viewing ECE in economic terms or thinking about creative ways to finance, strengthen and enhance its growth.
For many years our education funding have concentrated on high levels of education, while we have cut budgets in childhood care, preschool and out of school programmes.
A study on ‘Pre Primary Education in Tanzania’ done by Lyabwene Mtahabwa and Nirmala Rao, examined the relationship between pre-primary educational policy and actual practice in Tanzania. They analysed the Policy relevant to pre-primary education and they video-taped 15 pre-primary lessons from two urban and two rural schools.
Mtahabwa and Rao found out that although the national educational policy specifies the same standards for pre-primary education regardless of location, there were considerable differences across schools.
Compared to urban classes, rural ones had considerably less space, larger group sizes, less favourable teacher/pupil ratios, fewer instructional resources and less qualified teachers. Teacher professional qualifications appeared to influence the quality of classroom interaction more than the physical setting and resources.
Other findings were that most ECE centres or schools have not been officially registered, they also face a lot of challenges due to inadequate funding, they have poor teaching and learning environments manifested by lack of trained teachers, lack of teaching and learning materials and facilities, salaries for teachers are very low which de-motivate them, children are congested in small rooms, lack of proper meals for children and many more.
It is noteworthy that the school and classroom environment has both directly and indirectly influence to children’s learning. A child friendly environment which offers a child a sense of belonging, safety, availability of basic needs such as meals, clean sanitation (water and latrines), available teaching and learning materials and facilities, well organised learning activities including plays time in and out of classroom.
Most of the important aspects of ECE are missing in both in public and private ECE centres and schools. There might be a variety of reasons for this including there has not been a serious investment by government in public ECE centres and schools.
In Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP) I, though the ETP (1995) emphasized the importance of pre-primary education, PEDP I did not consider setting aside financial support to Primary schools to run pre-primary classes.
Therefore, heads of primary schools did not have specific budget for pre-primary classes. They had to cut part of budget targeted for primary school expenditures in order to support pre-primary classes which were under their management.
In private ECE centres and schools, many owners did not have adequate capital or in instances where they had adequate capital, they did not put much consideration in utilising their resources to invest in their projects.
There has been a number of complaints that private pre-primary schools and kindergartens charge very high fees which can reach up to 2,000,000/- annually. This has forced parents from poor households to send their children to centres which have low quality of programmes.
Despite low incomes, most middle income parents send their children to expensive pre-schools. What importance did they discover in ECE?
These parents have discovered that ECE programmes are important in preparing their children for entering school with the language, cognitive, and early reading skills that help them meet later academic challenges.
Through ECE children can provided with activities which support their holistic development in-terms of social development, physical development, intellectual development, innovation and creativity, and emotional development.
During this crucial period of growth children need enormous level of nutrition, nurturing and parental interaction; contrary to this children growth will be affected and it will eventually be manifested in dwindling success in preschool, kindergarten and beyond.
In the past decade, we have witnessed and heard of complaints from both government and parents that there a significant number of children are completing Standard VII with little or inadequate competency in reading, writing, arithmetic and listening skills. For sure, children who have passed through quality early childhood education programmes cannot have such a problem.
This calls for more investments in early childhood education in order to lay a strong foundation for future levels of education. I strongly believe that investment in ECE as well as early education grades (standards I to III) lays a very strong education foundation which will enhance smooth transition of students across levels of education.
We have witnessed university graduates with very poor and ineligible handwritings, poor language skills, poor quality of work in their papers, little inquisitiveness, not working independently, and many other deficiencies. These skills are laid down at ECE and early grades.
If you had a good pre-school and early grade teacher, who has mastered skills on teaching early grades, you definitely enjoyed learning and eventually possessed such skills, which are very important in higher grades, levels of education as well as at job market.
The overall effectiveness of an early childhood program is dependent upon several factors which include: quality staff, an appropriate environment, proper grouping practices, consistent scheduling, and parental involvement.
According to the US Department of Education, some additional characteristics of a high-quality early education programme include children having a safe, nurturing and stimulating environment, with the supervision and guidance of competent, caring adults, teachers planning a balanced schedule in which the children do not feel rushed or fatigued and ensuring schools provide nutritious meals and snacks.
The programme must also include a strong foundation in language development, early literacy, and early mathematics, staff must regularly communicate with parents and caregivers so that caregivers are active participants in their children's education, while preschools operate full day on a year-round basis, thus providing children with two years of pre-school, achieve better results than those that offer less intense services.
Some studies show that for every dollar invested in quality ECE citizens save about $7 or more on investment later on. People should rethink the value of early childhood education because of increasing needs for a more highly educated workforce in the twenty-first century. Moreover, early intervention may prevent intergenerational poverty.
In times of scarce public resources, the care and education of young children will continue to fall to the bottom of the priority list until there is a shift in public understanding about the economics of raising the next generation.
High-quality early childhood education is too vital to be brushed aside as a social services expenditure for only a few families or as too expensive to consider in tight budgetary times.
Investments in quality child care and early childhood education do more than pay significant returns to children, who are our future citizens. They also benefit taxpayers and enhance economic vitality.
Economic research in economic studies and in longitudinal studies spanning 40 years, demonstrate that the return on public investment in high quality childhood education is substantial.
For education researchers, there is a need to undertake cost-benefit analysis of ECE, including both short and long-term benefits of ECE in Tanzania. This study can come out with useful findings for our policy actions.
• The writer is a specialist in educational policy, planning, economics and finance. He is reachable through: +255754304181 or [email protected].