Running a preschool in one of Colombo’s biggest slums isn't easy, but head teacher R. A. Shalika Sajeevani exudes positivity. “The children don’t always bring snacks, so once a week, I make lunch for all of them at my home. It’s not a big deal – I cook for my own two sons anyway, I just put in a little extra for them,” she says.
The students are supposed to pay LKR 500 ($3.40) per month as school fees, but most are only occasionally able to do so. In spite of this, Sajeevani ensures that the preschool doors are open to all children in the neighborhood as many parents in this underserved community cannot afford to pay.
She pays her assistant and covers other expenses from the money collected and retains the rest as salary, a meagre amount of LKR 5,000 ($34) a month. Though this is barely enough to survive in Sri Lanka’s fast growing capital, she has come to work everyday for the last ten years.
Challenges in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE):
In a country with a well-structured free education system covering primary, secondary, and tertiary education, the state has traditionally provided little in terms of preschool education and care. However, evidence and experience has shown that ECCE improves school readiness and learning outcomes, which ultimately translates into better occupational status and earnings and yields much higher rates of return on investment.
According to the recent report, “Laying the Foundation for Early Childhood Education in Sri Lanka: Investing Early, Investing Smartly, and Investing for All”, Sri Lanka’s public spending on education as a percentage of its economy was the lowest in South Asia and its spending on early childhood education (ECE) is significantly lower than the global average.
While the country boasts of a near universal primary school enrollment rate, only about half of its 3 to 5 year-olds are enrolled in preschools which are not primarily covered by the state. Around 60 percent of preschools are run by the private sector and 24 percent by the other organizations and religious groups.
Income and location are found to be among the key determinants of access to ECCE. Children from the richest 20 percent of the population are 17 percent more likely to be enrolled in preschools than children from the poorest 20 percent. Enrollment rates in urban areas is 10 percent higher than enrollment in rural or estate areas. Many centers in the country do not have adequate learning materials and quality teachers, coupled with the lack of standardized curricula and teaching facilities. Many teachers to their credit, have to depend on their own creativity to develop activities and teaching methods.
The Government of Sri Lanka has taken a step forward by introducing the Early Childhood Development Project. Financed by the World Bank, the project is designed to revamp the ECCE system through introducing wider access and better quality services to all citizens. The project will be implemented over the next five years, under the leadership of the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs. Supporting all ECD centers, it will give priority to centers in poor, remote and/or underserved areas. The project will help improve (i) ECD policies, systems and structures, (ii) access to ECD services, (iii) ECD services quality improvements, (iv) health, nutrition and safety, and (v) monitoring and regulation.
For schools like Little Rose, the project could make a big difference. A parental awareness programs will be conducted to create a more conducive environment for preschool education by enhancing parents’ understanding of the value of holistic childhood development and good parenting practices. Such programs have the potential to open up learning opportunities for children and generate more parental support for preschools, particularly in low income communities. To broaden choices, the project will provide scholarship support to poor households, enabling parents to enroll children in both state and non-state-run ECD centers around the country.
The scholarships, which will be channeled through selected ECD centers will enable centers like Little Rose to offer full fee waivers to deserving students. For teachers like Sajeevani, the project could provide opportunities for formal training and education through funding teacher training programs in the form of one or two-year long ECD certificate or diploma courses, and in-service short-term training programs.
The road is long and there is much work to be done, but teachers like Sajeevani and others bring hope to an otherwise overwhelming task. They reflect what is right with the system. They are teachers who know how to love, how to nurture and how to educate. With people like them who are genuinely looking out for the wellbeing of the children and greater support and resources through the project and society, real change is possible.