We are getting it wrong; childhood education isn’t about buildings
Devolving Early Childhood Development and Education (ECDE) to the county level of government is a fair constitutional argument and key in the transformation of the life of young children.
Historically, ECDE has been a programme of local authorities, even though the national government has been involved in the training of teachers. The new constitution envisaged that ECDE continued to be a community project, and the counties were better placed to offer this service to the youngest citizens of Kenya.
Indeed, it would have been fair to devolve most educational functions to the counties, as parents, churches and NGOs have been involved in the management and infrastructure development in schools in Kenya.
In Turkana, for example, a majority of the schools (primary and secondary) have been put up by churches. It would have been fair for the constitution to recognise this role in education provision, especially in marginalised communities.
However, the challenge is the vision driving devolution of ECDE in the counties. The provision of ECDE appears to have been misunderstood to mean the provision of model classrooms. The holistic aspect of the ECDE has been disregarded and the focus has been on education.
Although the Ministry of Education has been keen on pre-primary education, it will be a mistake for the counties to adopt a purely education approach in the provision of ECDE service to young children.
It is easy to score political mileage by constructing classrooms for school children at any level of education. Many politicians, parents and education stake holders easily associate schools with modern classrooms.
In Turkana County, politicians reward their political supporters by giving them contracts to build classrooms for school children, even though the quality of the work is usually questionable when cracks soon emerge on the walls and floors of the newly finished classrooms.
The buildings do not necessarily attract children, as most of them end up as empty halls without learning materials and furniture. Why then construct more classrooms when the existing ones have not been adequately utilised.
A huge chuck of development funds go into the pockets of individuals through corrupt and underhand dealings. The rest go into wasted empty classroom constructed in isolation from the reach of children and families.
Turkana people have no room for wasteful projects, considering that the county is among the poorest in Kenya, as it suffers from persistent and endemic droughts, hunger and insecurity.
Ng’iturkana have continued to live at the margins of survival as they lack basic needs like food, medicine, security, education, water and others.
In Turkana, sustainable development is key in the provision of education and other services. For example, in the past, classrooms have never translated to better performance in examinations or an increase in enrolment in schools.
I know that many so-called permanent classrooms are empty halls in Turkana with only handful of children sitting on a dusty cracked floors to receive direct instruction from a poorly trained teacher or a volunteer teacher. Sometimes in these dusty cracking and windy classrooms, young children in an ECDE centre teach themselves. Lack of teachers is endemic in Turkana County.
The ECDE centres I have visited have permanent classrooms, but the teachers are volunteers whose highest level of education is Standard Eight at a local primary school.
I am arguing that ignorance about the meaning of education and the temptation to make money through corrupt deals might be responsible in driving the ECDE vision in Turkana.
Implementation of ECDE in the county should not be an expensive project to demand expensive infrastructure. The county will be less likely to attract the support of partners and well-wishers if construction of modern model classrooms becomes its key strategy in the implementation of ECDE.
Quality, access and performance in ECDE do not happen in modern classrooms but in the use of sustainable programmes that directly impact on the child and the parent. For example, children in Turkana grow and develop in structures existing in the family environment and community settings.
These children play under tree shades and on the river beds. They write on the sand and construct structures on the river sand and hunt and catch insects and birds. They play sophisticated games at their play grounds. This is the way young children learn to become scientists. If we explore the natural ways in which children grow and improve it with adequate supply of medicines, relevant story books, adequate nutrition and availability of water and proper sanitation, we can reach many children at the communities and in the homesteads without having to invest in buildings, which in most times are out of reach by the children.
Innovative approaches in early childhood can directly impact on the child and the family with less cost, while the quality of the programme is better.
The buildings will take a chunk of money and deny the children basic needs like food, water, medicine and the opportunity for growth in the natural settings. In addition, it will be impossible to employ teachers if more money went into corruption through expensive model classrooms.
If a teacher is available to play with children at the riverbeds in every village, many children can be reached at the community level. If we build classrooms in primary schools, small children will not feel safe to walk to the primary schools to attend ECDE centres because of the distances of the structures from homes.
In Turkana, long distances to schools has been a challenge hampering children accessibility to primary education. Why would we want pre-school children to be caught up in this long distance menace, if these children can learn around the community and at the homesteads?
Permanent classrooms do not teach children. Worse still, these classrooms persistently lack quality learning materials as the conditions of learning do not encourage creativity and problem solving, which the children are used to in their natural nomadic lifestyles.
Qualified teachers can harness quality learning materials locally from the everyday cultural environment of the children and from nature. The use of culturally relevant materials in teaching in ECDE will lay the foundation of the values critical in children to develop into fully integrated members of their society.
In Norway, for example, children continue with the natural life of their home environment when attending pre-schools. Norwegian people keep the learning environment of the children very natural to prevent disruptions in a child’s life. Consequently, Norwegian pre-schools are extensions of family environment and teachers act like parents.
In Kenya, young children are taught like adults in permanent classrooms. There is no difference between ECDE centres and standard one classes, as they also share the same textbooks. Yet research is clear that academic environment in early childhood level of education does not and will never translate to better performance in children in higher levels of education.
The research shows that countries that emphasize academic environment in early years of schooling are performing poorly in education. Effective and sustainable quality ECDE programmes in Turkana County should incorporate the following ideas in programming for children services:
Use of community existing structures for child rearing to reach and educate many young children at the community and family level;
Invest in teacher recruitment, training and continuous in-service programmes in innovative instructional approaches that adapt local knowledge of child rearing in the provision of ECDE services for children;
Ensure the integration of a strong health and nutrition programme to guarantee a holistic approach to child development in order to have healthy school children;
Invest on the production of culturally relevant reading materials to ensure adequate literacy skills are developed in children from the early childhood level through primary;
Delink ECDE from primary education to avoid the temptation of academic pressure on young children. Academic pressure stresses young children and negatively impacts on their attitude towards learning and may lead to low self-esteem and rejection of school at the primary level.
Implementation of ECDE should be matched with a strong parents and community awareness education system. This is the only way we can ensure that families become partners in their young children’s education.