The failure of pre-school education in Sri Lanka..................................
by Douglas King, consultant in Early Childhood Education
Forget the titles Montessori, kindergarten, nursery school, early childhood centre, and several more as most pre-schools are little more than play groups and even as such many fail to provide adequately in educational, physical and social spheres. 90% of 4 year-olds attend one of the estimated 14,000 pre-schools in the country. The majority of these schools are privately run for profit, but many of the others under control of local government or NGOs fare no better. This might be seen as a total condemnation of the approach to Early Childhood Education in Sri Lanka. Despite various educational institutions, both government and private offering 1 or 2 year diplomas in Early Childhood Education, they have failed to conduct courses that meet professional standards.
The first six years of a child’s life is universally recognized as the Early Childhood stage, and acknowledged as the most critical for future development. During these initial six years a child will have developed more rapidly, both physically and mentally than any other period. Research has shown convincing evidence that this period is crucial for the full and positive development of the brain. Numerous studies have also indicated that the lack of a stimulating physical, social and emotional environment , can reduce the child’s brain developing its full potential. The part played by nurture or nature ceases to be questioned, and though we cannot change our genetic endowment, the environment in which it develops has a far reaching influence.
The Early Childhood stage lays a foundation for values, attitudes as well as social and personal habits. To ignore these aspects or to misinterpret them can be a retrograde step for developing countries such as Sri Lanka. Therefore, planning for Early Childhood Education it is necessary to take into account three fundamental principles. Child development is continuous and cumulative, and even pre-natal experiences can have some influence. The two years of pre-school represent 40% of the child’s initial 5 years of life and should not be left to a hit and miss developmental exposure. Later formal schooling and learning levels are significantly influenced by positive early experiences.
Various government departments since 2003 have drafted a number of statements and position papers on Early Childhood Development and Education but little has been acted upon, and the funding granted by leading NGOs has produced little meaningful development. Minimal standards may have been suggested but in practice anyone, anywhere and anyhow can open a pre-school. All too often the facilities are poor and in some cases violate basic health and safety standards. The so-called "real" Montessori schools often charge high enrollment and monthly fees and can provide better premises, but educationally they are stuck in a rigid Montessori time warp that refuses to acknowledge a more eclectic attitude in Early Childhood Education. It’s as if Montessori philosophy cannot be questioned, and many of these schools offer training leading to recognized Montessori diplomas, whilst in reality utilizing students as free teachers.
Though many pre-schools now have qualified teachers, this does not always imply good practice. One has to question standards of the universities and colleges awarding certification in Early Childhood Education and whether they have the model classrooms or faculties to .produce competent teachers. In so many pre-schools a lack of suitable developmental play materials has contributed to a diet of work books that teach aspects of the grade 1 curriculum. Quantity rather than quality is seen by parents as a sign of a good school. Thus a child might be expected to fill a workbook with mind-numbing daily period of writing alphabet letters and ubiquitous colouring sheets. Such activities are little more than busy-work requiring no preparation or even insight into educational theory and practice. Formal teaching of reading, writing and maths can even have a detrimental affect for children who will then become passive and bored in grade 1. Schools that follow developmentally appropriate curriculum are few and far between and may not be held in high regard by many parents, even though they provide a more meaningful experience. Most pre-schools, in the absence of suitable developmental activities, also rely on a fare of art and craft. All too often the end product has become more important than the process, so the 20 or so identical birds, elephants, hats, Santa Klaus shows up the creative talents of teachers rather than the children who have simply added some colouring and sticking. The annual exhibition attracts the admiration of parents and visitors who must be naïve to believe that the beautiful exhibits were produced solely by the children.
Pre-school education in Sri Lanka has developed a style of its own that is uniquely out of step with the more widely accepted Early Childhood Education theories and practice valued in most developed countries. Often the uniform is the only creative aspect with an array of styles and colours that gives the school visual status. A simple concert at Christmas time has always been enjoyed by children and parents. However, many pre-schools see this events as a show-piece for the quality of education and plan concerts in large halls lasting several hours, requiring numerous changes of costume (paid for by parents) and scenery. Perhaps most devastating of all it requires months of training and rehearsals much to the chagrin of the children, who have been denied purposeful activities and recreation. Sport meets should be fun but many pre-schools have copied the format in use by high schools. Competition is fierce and appropriate medals awarded in Olympic style ceremonies. Parents are there to encourage their offspring to victory or more often to failure. Special guests and high-end speaker systems are becoming more common at some of these functions. In addition, many schools are now training their children for a colourful drill display, with costumes intended to impress parents. Slowly creeping into this uniquely Sri Lankan pre-school culture is the Prize Day that apes the formalities of the high schools. It may seem fictitious but a small number of schools have started awarding prefect status to their five-year-olds who have not yet started grade 1. And to cap it all is the final graduation ceremony complete with cap, gown and diploma.
There are some excellent pre-schools though few have been identified or recognized. It could be assumed that pre-schools attached to top schools in Colombo and Kandy would be among the best. However a visit to a large pre-school at a leading independent school in Kandy indicated standards that were far from satisfactory in spite of parents paying very high fees and enrollment charges. Little could be found that showed an insight into Early Childhood Education. Classrooms had only a few well worn books and play materials were confined to a large box and included broken cars and dolls. Much of the display on walls had required a heavy dose of teacher skill rather than displaying the more primitive work of the child. A "real" Montessori school for 120 children in Colombo could only offer an outdoor play area equipped with a slide, swing and see-saw and space for fewer than 20 children at one time. The classrooms, devoid of any displays, were lined with polished wood shelves holding a wide range of the "didactic" materials so loved by Montessori adherents. Few of these materials seemed to be in regular use but an assortment of workbooks did proliferate along with various teacher directed activities. This particular Montessori school is well sort after by professionals and has a waiting list for annual enrollment. A large day-care pre-school with over 80 children at a leading university has standards that no university could be proud to show. There is little to commend it apart from the friendliness of teachers. The depressing outside playground has a rusting slide, a swing and a broken see-saw, and hardly any covering of grass. Groups of 20 children are penned into small rooms with virtually no materials or equipment It’s a sad reflection on the university that despite boasting an education faculty, such a poor pre-school facility has been allowed to fester for over 20 years.
In the absence of any proper regulation for pre-schools it appears that standards are unlikely to improve. Like the unregulated tuition classes, pre-schools are primarily businesses and in order to turn a profit, teacher salaries can be as low as Rs.5000 a month. Few parents, even those with professional qualifications, really comprehend or value an enriched early childhood education based on the social and educational requirements of the young child. Although it has long been recognized that play is the work of the child, most parents and teachers make a clear separation. Playing with blocks, sand, water and puzzles are not equated with "real" work that can be tested and seen in workbooks.
It will take more than the usual spate of seminars and political proclamations to bring the 14,000 pre-schools and the estimated 60,000 teachers up to a standard that reflects a degree of excellence or simply good pre-school practice. If the Ministry of Education, N.I.E. and institutes of higher education cannot get their act together, what hope for the thousands of pre-schools dotted around the towns and villages in the country. Pouring more money into yet more seminars can hardly help since there seems to be so few in authority or with decision making positions who have real expertise in Early Childhood Education.
What is urgently needed is a National Centre for Early Childhood Education to serve as a positive influence in raising standards throughout the country. It would not only demonstrate good practice through a model pre-school, but would also be a resource centre making full use of internet communication and a place where teachers and students alike could visit to see materials, equipment and library resources and participate in seminars and workshops. It is unlikely that such a Centre could be established since there are numerous competing interests in government which would lay claim to it.
To see good pre-school practice look at the pre-school videos on Youtube site douglasking2 The photo in this article and the videos on Youtube were taken at Jar-Jums pre-school, Kandy.