30 November 2012

Namibia: Uneven Start: Why Early Childhood Education Is Worthy of Public Dollars


EACH year, hundreds of Namibian students who sit for grade 10 and grade 12 don't make it, with many reportedly obtaining ungraded results. Similarly, a few years ago, Unesco ranked Namibian children's reading proficiency after six years at school at the bottom of the education ladder in Southern Africa.

This should not come as a surprise because at the beginning of each school year, hundreds of Namibian children from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and rural areas start their life learning journey in our education system far behind the standard learning curve of their peers from wealthier backgrounds. This means that many Namibian children are reaching third grade, a very important stage in the child's learning process as he/she transitions from 'learning to read' to 'reading to learn', with insufficient reading skills. Yes, we can build schools and classrooms. We can ambush teachers to make them stay in the classrooms. And yes, we can compel kids to show up for every class. However, we cannot expect students to do well and pass grades 10 and 12 if their learning foundation is poor.

Of course, the reason for poor performance in Namibian schools is not linear (rather complex and deep-seated), but the connection between poor grade 10/12 results and the unprepared kindergarten kids is the uneven start in education, an unlevel playing field which works against children from poor background unlike their counterparts from affluent backgrounds who have access to preschool education or parents who can read to them and prepare them for schooling. The ugly truth, in comparison to children from rich socio-economic backgrounds and to some extent children from urban areas, is that disadvantaged children don't have the luxury of educational toys, computers, tv/radio educational programs or parents who can read to them in order to stimulate, nurture, and train their minds for their formal education journey. As an addendum to this, we also know that our education curricula for the most part are urban-oriented and Eurocentric; therefore failing children from rural and underprivileged backgrounds in terms of teaching them what is meaningful to their daily reality.

Scholarship on early childhood education suggests that a child who is behind the standard learning curve when they reach the third grade has no or less chance to catch up. Consider this: for every Namibian child left behind in the learning curve, the social and economic costs are immense in terms of school dropout, failing grades, unemployment, unskilled workforce, under education, poverty and other social and economic disparities. Yet the importance of early childhood education and care in our education system has received a shoddy deal, outsourcing and relegating it to the Gender Ministry and non-governmental organisations. While considering resource constraints, the Gender Ministry's early childhood education programs are well-intended, their outcomes, however, largely remain uncertain so far.

What do we do with all the children who are still showing up unprepared in our schools then? Nora Schimming-Chase and many others suggest that early learning education (a quality one, I should add!) should be the cornerstone of our education system. I agree. Early childhood education is a return on investment that is hard to beat because children are public goods—goods that benefit all or more than one consumer. In other words, the benefits that accrue from raising, caring and educating children are not exclusively enjoyed by the child and his/her immediate family alone but the society also benefits in terms of productivity, responsible citizenship, revenues, and economic growth. An increasing body of research from other countries supports this thesis. For example, the short-term benefits to the child include enhanced academic achievement, improved health, as well as increased well-being. The long-term benefits to the child come in the form of increased likelihood of graduation, college enrolment, increased likelihood of employment and decreased likelihood to participate in criminal activities. The short-term benefits for the family and the society are in terms of cost reduction for schools (children spent less time in special education), increased learning environment, reduction in abuse or child neglect. The long-term benefits to the society are obtained through increased income tax revenues, productive and skilled labor, and less dependence on the government.

More importantly, providing quality learning not only would provide high returns for our children and the society at large, but would also be in line with post-independent Namibia's underlying philosophy of 'Education for All' through the policy goals of access, equity, quality, and democracy. The principle of equality speaks loud here because it dictates that education is a right not a privilege reserved for the few with means and resources. The notion that children should not be deprived the opportunity to acquire knowledge and vital skills needed to succeed in life are central to a free and democratic society. An uneven start, in terms of an enabling environment and learning opportunities, are the main causes of inequalities in later life, therefore investing in early childhood education is also substantially addressing the root causes of societal inequalities.

*Ndumba J. Kamwanyah is a public policy consultant and an Africa blogger for the Foreign Policy Association.

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