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Pre-schools and the poor [The Fiji Times, 5 May 2003]


Every year, the Government faces a major financial dilemma.    It gives some grants to pre-schools, here and there; it pays for some pre-school teachers’ salaries, here and there.

But pre-schools are largely paid for by the local communities, fees are quite high, and beyond the means of many poor families.

Communities want Government to fully finance pre-schools, on par with primary schools.

But agreeing to these demands would blow the Education budget, and probably the whole Government budget as well.

To date, Government has resisted, fearing that large amounts may have to be spent essentially for child-care facilities.

And cynics ask: do pre-schools really matter for academic performance?

Surprising survey results

  MostFiji education studies rely on international evidence- an unsatisfactory approach.

Some time ago, I conducted a survey at a large multi-racial primary school, to see if going to pre-school made any difference to children’s later academic performance in primary schools.

The findings were interesting.  To strengthen the study statistically, I looked at another three primary schools this year.

The marks of some 586 pupils were examined, in their internal English and Mathematics exams for Classes 1, 3 and 6.   The marks were standardised around means  of 50 and standard deviation of 10.

The students comprised some 63 percent Fijians, 26% Indo-Fijians and 11% Others.

Some 31 percent of the children came from “Poor” back-grounds (roughly defined by parents earning less than $5,000 a year in income).

While one school’s results were anomalous, the trends were clear and extremely important for education policy.

The Poor do Worse

  Overall, and not surprisingly, the children from Well-off families did better than the children from Poor families.

For three of  the schools, the Means were significantly higher for the Well-off.   For instance, for School-1, the English Mean was 21 percent higher, and for Maths, 20 percent higher (see Table).


Means for the Well-off higher by (%)















All schools




Such differences in average marks mean that the children from Poor families end up having much higher failure rates.  They drop out of primary and secondary school earlier than the Well-off children.  They are less likely to obtain higher qualifications.

Their families cannot provide them with good jobs after school. They end up in low-skill jobs with low incomes.   And eventually, their children face the same vicious cycle of poverty.

Impact of Pre-schools

  Of course the data showed that going to pre-schools improved academic performance.

But, surprisingly, the improvement was miles higher for Poor children who attended pre-schools, than it was for Well-off children.

In School-1 and School-2, the average English marks for Poor children going to pre-school increased by 21 and 26 percent respectively, while that for Well-off children increased by a mere 3 percent.    Similar differences were evident for School-2.

Perc. improvement in English Means because of Pre-school




All pupils

















All schools





The results for School 4 are anomalous and weaken the results for all the schools in aggregate.  But the trends are clear from the first three schools.  And similar significant improvements for the Poor took place in Maths.

The children from Poor families show much bigger improvement in academic peformance if they go to pre-school, than do the children of the Well-off.

Now why should that be?   Perhaps that does make sense.

Poor children come from weak home backgrounds: the parents are less educated, they spend less on books or newspapers, or educational TV.

Pre-schools therefore provide Poor children with a much richer educational environment from which they benefit.

Whereas the difference may not be so important for Well-off children.

These are critical results, especially as they relate to the  economic gap between the Poor and the Well-off in all our communities.

Pre-schools close the gap

  For School-1, the gap between the Well-off and the Poor in English Means closed from 26 percent to 8%.  In Maths, the gap closed from 25 percent to 7 percent.  Similar results were indicated for School-2.

For School-3, the gap was even reversed i.e Poor children who attended pre-schools ended up doing better than the Well-off children who attended pre-school.

Undoubtedly, pre-schooling significantly improves the pass rate for Poor children, and their chances of obtaining higher qualifications and better 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, with the high fees, the Poor are less able to afford pre-schools than the Well-off.

In my sample of the four schools, only 41 percent of the Poor children were able to attend pre-schools as opposed to 66 percent of the well-off.

Yet it is the Poor of all races, who stand to benefit most from pre-schools.

What should Government do?

  If Government wants to help the children of the poor, it must start guaranteeing attendance at pre-schools for all Poor children inFiji, of all races.

Making primary education free is just not enough, since by that time the gap is already established between the Poor and the Well-off.

And the evidence of my study suggests that such gaps in academic performance remain throughout primary school.

Aggregate 2000 data for pre-schools inFiji, indicates that there are also significant enrolment differences between urban and rural areas.

Government rightly gives a higher per capita funding for pre-schools in rural and remote areas (compared to the urban areas).

But urban schools are able to charge higher fees, and engage in other fund-raising, resulting in much higher financial resources (more than twice as much per student) than in rural pre-schools.

Some urban pre-schools (like School-1 in my survey)  are actually based at primary schools and therefore probably provide much better teaching and learning environments.

Not so for many other pre-schools which are run from private homes, churches and temples, and often without trained teachers.

Can Government pay the teachers?

  Year 2000 data for all ofFiji pre-schools indicates that average pre-school salaries were less than $1300 per year (and much less in rural areas).

Financially, it would be almost impossible for Government to fund all pre-school teachers at the salary levels currently prevailing in primary schools.

Nor should they, since a large proportion of the pre-school enrolment is also for “child-care” facilities for children below the age of five (some as young as three).

But surely Government can negotiate some basic minimum salary for all pre-school teachers (with a premium for qualifications).

Pre-school class-rooms can be built at existing primary schools, through a partnership between Government (providing materials) and local communities (providing labour).

Non-government education authorities must as a priority establish pre-schools at their primary schools, and guarantee free access to the children of the Poor, with or without Government assistance.

Funding pre-schools for the poor would also free the poor parents to engage in income generating work  Currently, only the well-off can afford to do so.

The bottom line must be: the children of the poor must not be denied pre-school because they are poor.  They stand to gain the most.

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