While Play Is Hardly Considered An Important Form Of Education In Many Rwandan Schools, Investing In School Readiness Ventures Has The Potential To Boost The Economy While At The Same Time, Repurposing The Direction Of The Country’s Already Struggling Education System. How? The Answer Comes In The Form Of Early Childhood Education That When Accessed By Children From All Echelons Of Society, Will Propel The Economy Of The Country In The Long Run.
According to a World Bank study, Investing in Young Children, investments in early childhood development translate into considerable cost savings and efficiency gains in the health and education sectors. According to the report, this leads to “socially well-adjusted and productive adults who contribute to a country ‘s economic growth and help break the intergenerational cycle of poverty as demonstrated by higher wages, lower dependence on social assistance programs, greater asset accumulation, and healthier.”
However, for this concept to succeed there are a number of approaches that must be taken into consideration. These include providing integrated services that help children develop to their full potential in health and nutrition, education, and psychosocial wellbeing.
Carol Dusabe, the early childhood education (ECD) Program Manager at Save the Children, Rwanda, says that through their organisation’s interventions for children from birth to six years, they have had to collaborate with a number of stakeholders both in the communities and pre-primary schools all the way to the national level.
“The ECD age is the most crucial in providing a foundation for future. Brain science teaches us that more than 80 per cent of the child’s brain develops by the age of three years and 95 per cent by the age of six years,” Dusabe says, adding that, “There is a small window in which a child can learn so much as their brain grows and matures. If you miss that window, then the child’s potential for learning is greatly reduced.”
Recent data from the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) states that only 13 per cent of children aged four to six years have access to ECD services. (The specifics of those children who are up to three years are yet to be investigated.) The goal is to increase that number to at least 30 per cent between 2016 and 2017.
“The interventions available are mostly in health, like immunisation and nutrition initiatives, but are very limited in coverage when it comes to education. Because at zero to three years, children need a more holistic approach to care that includes cognitive learning and socio-emotional input,” she states.
Save the Children has piloted a project and done a study that trains parents on home-based activities to help their children gain emergent literacy and math skills for school readiness. Even without going through a formal pre-primary school education, they are ready for the first year of primary school.
“At this moment we need a combination of approaches, where children have access to ECD centres that either provide all three years or a year of pre-primary education, and for those who are not part of these, parenting education can be used to reach them,” she explained.
Accessing A Validated ECD Policy
Currently, there are no minimum standards for certified ECD centres. However, a revised ECD policy by the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF) is in the pipeline. Set to be implemented between 2016-2021, the new strategic plan will improve access to ECD education and streamline its quality across all early childhood service providers.
Immaculee Kayitare, the Technical Assistant to MIGEPROF in ECD policy implementation, said the policy provides a framework for the execution of ECD guidelines to implementing partners. Kayitare said, “It will also make provisions for children to benefit from similar services across all strata of society so that they can fully achieve their potential.”
While urban areas have access to more ECD services through nursery schools and crèches, the rural areas have less and are presented in the form of community-based services. But the trend is changing. “These services do not necessarily have monetary implications for the rural parents,” said Kayitare.
With free services made available to rural parents, the only condition is their involvement. They are also trained to care for the children on a rotational basis in a way that allows them to fulfil their various job responsibilities.
“The private sector is well equipped to invest in this new area, there is a high market demand for day cares, and any service dedicated to children will always be beneficial. You can never fail to find children to fill these places,” she said.
The policy presents private sector investors with opportunities to implement, scale up, and act on ECD provisions while the government raises awareness on its importance.
“The government has provided a framework for the private sector to work within. We can’t do everything alone. We create awareness, roll out services, and provide direction through policy support,” Kayitare explained.
Investments in early childhood interventions that encourage the well-being and development of young children can result in one of the highest returns on investment by the government and for the private sector. But, these returns are indirect, and happen in the long term.
Still, this has led to a business trend across Kigali that takes the burden off working parents – albeit at a costly exchange. These are in the form of crèches and day care centres that are equipped differently so as to introduce children to early literacy and math skills. However, bare minimum standards for the operation of all ECD centres are yet to be established in the ECD policy.
And because there remain many socioeconomic issues that render investing in ECD programs more complex than simply injecting capital, a holistic approach that accounts for this – especially from a policy standpoint – must be deployed. If not executed properly, ECD programs have the potential to perpetuate disparities in wealth on a long term basis; if quality ECD programs remain accessible to only the wealthiest families, these families will continue on their economically mobile route at the top, while the majority of the population sees little change – potentially robbing the country’s future economy of valuable talent.
Investment And Quality
Kids Land, a crèche located in Remera, takes in children aged three months to three years. With programs offered in English and French, at the choice of the parents, they also teach Kinyarwanda as a part of their early literacy strategy for young learners.
Jeanne Musabimana is the proprietor of Kids Land who said that when she launched her crèche on March 2016, her motivation was based on the vast challenges of working parents in Kigali. With every new crèche business, the economy is boosted through job creation, tax payment, and increased demand for products from other industries such as toys and books. This is in addition to improving the quality of services provided at these centres.
“Parents would have more choices; competition would increase as well as quality of services and innovation,” Musabimana said.
When it comes to the costs incurred for working parents Musabimana says, “There is a perception that day care centres are expensive for most parents. We should not just look at the cost but at the benefits. And I believe in many ways, the benefits outweigh the costs.”
Furthermore, Save the Children’s ECD Dusabe affirms that parents must be the first people to contribute to their child’s emotional and cognitive development. “No amount of nanny or crèche time can replace the contribution that the parents make by simply spending time with their children,” she says.
Another working parent, Keisha Irene, says finding the right school for pre-primary is very challenging in Kigali. “There are very few crèches and the few you find are very expensive,” she said. “The crèche we found is over Rwf 500,000 (USD$660) per quarter, which isn’t cheap. We were not mainly looking at the cost; we wanted a good child friendly environment, an all-inclusive curriculum, and trust that comes with trained and skilled ECD personnel.”
Busy career parents who get home late, carry work home or even work weekends have found asylum in a system that works to indulge their parenting needs. It is also practical to get the same quality of education across various ECD centres once companies invest in childcare facilities at the work place at affordable rates, because the returns there are significant as well.
Additionally, the strategic plan for the implementation of the National Gender Policy (2010) indicates that men occupy the majority of key positions in all sectors – something can be attributed to the social constructs that determine men’s and women’s expectations in the workforce. Where men are mostly viewed as decision makers, women are socially expected to be involved in domestic activities, and this hinders a large percentage of the country’s potential labour force. “Women comprise a large percentage of the productive world, and if they are relieved for the briefest moment, they can contribute significantly,” Mrs Irene said, adding that, “With this system in place, there is no excuse for the parent to not to be able to perform at the workplace while also remaining able to spend quality time with their children.”
While investment potential is key in ECD, these examples show that there is also a significant socio-economic divide, as well as a gender divide that in effect, positively or negatively contributes to holistic ECD program implementation. Rwf 500,000, for example, is prohibitively expensive for the majority of the country’s population, so while the benefits are certainly valid, they are benefits that few can actually enjoy.
Education Comes In Many Shapes
Benon Talemwa, the Policy Analyst at MIGEPROF in charge of Gender Mainstreaming and Family Promotion, played a major part in developing the ECD Policy for Rwanda. He says, “People need to distinguish between the ECD and the mainstream education. It goes beyond building infrastructures, it primarily starts with the parents’ involvement in the child’s life, especially from birth to three years,” Talemwa said.
Because children undergo different stages of early childhood development that includes physical, emotional, psychosocial, and cognitive language development, Talemwa says “There is not an issue of access as long as parents are trained; ECD goes beyond the facilities.”
“[The parents] are the primary educators of their children. This is the fundamental and highest possible role of parents towards their children.”
However, the challenges associated with working parents who face conflicting loyalties between providing foundational care for their infants and keeping their jobs remains. “To ensure their productivity at the work place, the success of ECD is not solely the governments. Corporate organisations and institutions need to provide childcare incentives in the form of facilities to enable employees to perform their duties,” explained Talemwa.
He added, “This is not something the government can enforce in a policy for the private sector. We can’t force private firms to make provisions for child care, but we can create awareness and encourage them to support their employees out of their own initiative and will.”
Additionally, there is culturally challenge of where there is value in education.
Terry Van den Akker is an expert in Early Year Education from the Netherlands who has worked with children in Ruhango District and started a toy making business called Chameleon Resources that specializes in early childhood education in the Rwandan context. As the Creative Director, Akker says that all children learn best through play but many people do not fully understand its link to a child’s brain development.
“To be school ready, children need to learn through play. Critical thinking starts early in childhood in a language of instruction that enables clear communication between the child and their parents,” Akker said.
Yet, there are limitations to this in many Rwandan schools, where according to Terry, “play is not considered an important form of learning,” a challenge that their toy making business grapples with. “Many parents complained about play saying the teachers were not doing enough teaching and were wasting time playing with the children,” she said.
With Athanase Ntibazimana, the business Managing Director, mentions that they find it challenging to make and supply their products due to a lack of awareness among both parents and schools.
Making educational materials seems like a no-brainer, but businesses that invest in Early Childhood Education are still finding it difficult to launch in Rwanda. “Good quality toys are expensive to produce and these educational tools are supposed to be tax free, but we are still taxed because people do not see the different approach to education that we are taking. It’s an EDC curriculum support approach that would help change the direction of our education system,” Ntibazimana said.
Thus, mind-set change requires that investors look to the vast new opportunities presented by ECD because the demand is high. They can make locally made toys, books and other play material that fit within the Rwandan context.
The Equity Divide
Irrespective of the need to find alternative ways to educate young learners, the equity gap needs to be bridged, and ECD can help decrease the gap between the rich and the poor.
A survey by Save the Children, Public Awareness of Emergent and Early Literacy in Rwanda, indicates that “Households with higher socio-economic status were more likely to engage in literacy promotion activities.” The research attributed this to different attitudes associated with the promotion of emergent and early literacy. The survey covered 84.7 per cent rural and 15.3 per cent urban areas and took into account the education, literacy, and the socio-economic status of parents.
“Families with educated and financially stable parents will provide more support to their children’s literacy and numeracy skills through buying books and toys that enable them to become critical thinkers, while the poor whose parents are illiterate and struggle financially will not be able to do the same,” Dusabe said.
According to research done by Yale University and UNICEF, Economic Crises and Early Childhood, an investment in the early years reaps high dividends when it comes to social and economic development.
The research confirms that the “indications are almost a sevenfold dividend per dollar invested in early childhood programs” and that the greater profits in terms of improved educational outcomes are for the most vulnerable children. Additionally, while an effective and holistic ECD approach would predict greater gains in later educational achievement and learning, it also helps bridge a society’s equity gap and thus leads to poverty mitigation.
But how can this be put into practice?
“This needs to start at policy level, where we are hearing a lot of theories, but nothing practical. We need the collaboration of all stakeholders where leaders can intervene and initiate change within the pre-primary education level. There is no need for Rwandans to escape from their education system, but rather, we have what it takes to change it,” Athanase Ntibazimana said.
Ultimately, it is through investment in the education of young learners (zero to six years) that provides an early opportunity to confront the wealth gap and propel greater educational and economic achievements for later years. While EDC may not be a panacea, laying a foundation that ensures full implementation of effective ECD programs across geographic areas and socioeconomic levels can help Rwanda achieve equity – whether social or economic – for the benefit of the entire country.
This article Originally appeared in The Accelerator