Free Pre-schools for the Poor [The Fiji Times, 30 July 2010]
Every Fiji Government over the last two decades has stated that they believe in universal primary education.
They have removed tuition fees for all primary students in the country; they have paid the salaries of all the teachers; schools receive per capita grants which are supposed to cover all their running costs; and recently school children from poor families have been able to receive transport subsidies.
These policies have succeeded to a large extent since some 98 percent of primary school age children actually do attend school, even the children of the poorest in Fiji.
But no Government has ever guaranteed free pre-schools for the poor, even though some grants are given here and there to pre-schools, and government pays for some pre-school teachers’ salaries.
The unfortunate reality is that large proportions of five year olds from poor families are unable to attend pre-school. And the problem is worse for the rural poor as is shown by this new statistics from the 2002-3 Household Income and Expenditure Survey from the Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics.
|Percentages of 5 year olds At School|
Even in urban areas, only 59% of the 5 year olds from the Poorest 30% were in school compared to 67% of the 5 year olds from the Richest 30% of the population.
Does it matter?
Well it does matter, and a lot for the children of the poor.
The Poor Benefit More from Pre-Schools
Some time ago, I conducted a survey at four large primary schools, to see if going to pre-school made any difference to children’s later academic performance in primary schools.
Some 31 percent of the children came from “Poor” back-grounds (roughly defined by parents earning less than $5,000 a year in income).
The findings were extremely interesting. Of course the data showed that going to pre-schools improved academic performance of these children in Class 1.
But, the improvement was significantly higher for Poor children who attended pre-schools, than it was for Well-off children.
The improvements were evident in both English and Mathematics.
The improvements closed the gap between the academic performance of the Poor and the Rich.
And the improvements for the Poor children lasted into later years up to higher levels of primary schools.
Surely that does make sense.
Poor children come from home backgrounds where the parents are less educated, they spend less on books or newspapers, or educational TV.
Pre-schools therefore provide the Poor children with a much richer educational environment than their homes. Whereas the difference may not be so important for Well-off children.
Closing the Economic Gaps
These are critical results, especially as they relate to the economic gap between the Poor and the Well-off in all our communities.
It is probably the case that pre-schooling significantly improves the pass rate for Poor children at all the higher levels of education.
Pre-schooling improves the Poor children’s chances of obtaining higher qualifications and better employment and incomes in life.
Pre-schooling can therefore be a major strategy for helping Poor people to break out of their vicious cycle of poverty and closing the gap with the Well-off.
But they cannot, if they have to pay for pre-school themselves.
But, ironically, parents spend more per child at pre-schools ($86) than they do on primary school kids ($65).
Worse still, the Poorest 30% spend only $46 per child at Pre-school, while the Richest 30% spend $154 per child, clearly giving them better quality education.
It is no wonder, therefore, that while there is virtually 100% enrolment at primary school ages, the Poor are simply unable to afford pre-schools.
What should any Government do?
If Government wants to help the education of children of the poor, it must start guaranteeing attendance at pre-schools for all Poor children in Fiji.
Making primary education free is just not enough, since by that time the gap is already established between the Poor and the Well-off.
Can they afford it?
Rough estimates suggest that there are some 7,000 five year olds not at school. To get them enrolled, there would need to be some 350 additional pre-school class-rooms costing roughly $4 millions.
There would need to be at least an additional 350 pre-school teachers trained, and paid appropriate salaries- that would be another $4 millions per year.
We are talking about an additional $10 millions per year, to give meaning to the word “universal primary education”.
And there would be the massive problem of ensuring that distant rural villages all have their pre-school class-rooms and trained teachers.
Role for Donors
It is clear that the current Fiji budget is already under enormous strain because of expanded expenditure elsewhere, and already the Education budget is being cut.
With a stagnant economy, tax revenues are under strain.
Many of our traditional donors, such as the EU, AusAID and NZAID have spent tens of millions over the last five years to improve the educational outcomes in basic education, especially for the Poor, the Remote and the Disadvantaged.
But much of these funds have been focused on primary, secondary and tertiary education by which time it is too late to help the children from the poorest families.
Fact: only 55% of children from poorest 30% of the population reach upper secondary school compared to 73% from the Top 30% of the population.
Fact: only 27% of children from poorest 30% of the population reach tertiary institutions compared to 44% from the Top 30% of the population.
To bridge the gap between the Poor and the Rich, donor efforts must focus on Pre-Schools: building the class-rooms, training the pre-school teachers, and especially getting them to the rural areas which are already disadvantaged in education.
Pre-schools must be made free for the poorest people.
If universal basic education is to be more than just a dream.