A 'To-do' List for Pre-school Education
Sunday, 02 September 2012
There are more areas that the review should include
Address uneven quality across pre-schools. Check.
Level the playing field for the lower- to middle-income. Check.
Improve teachers' capabilities and keep fees affordable. Check.
In acknowledging these issues to be dealt with, the Government has spelt out what it sees as the parameters of the work ahead for the pre-school sector. But it seems to me that there are a few issues that fall on, or even outside, the periphery of such plans.
There is the mother of two boys, one of whom, at age 5, is autistic.
Mrs Wong recalls knocking on doors of pre-schools after her other son's kindergarten could not accommodate her autistic child as they lacked the manpower.
Eventually, despite having only her husband's income to depend on - she had quit her job to take care of her special-needs son - she sent her son to enrichment lessons tailored to his needs. "My son would ask me why he is not in the same school as his brother," she told TODAY.
There is also the pre-school teacher, Ms Yeo, who wrote us a poignant email talking about the lack of respect she faced, even from her family members. She felt misunderstood and unappreciated, regardless of the effort she put in. Pre-school teachers are "long overdue" for attention, she noted.
Lastly, there are parents like Mrs Chua H L, whose five-year-old attends a Reggio-inspired pre-school where outdoor play features prominently in the timetable.
Though other parents have called for a national curriculum, she hopes that such unique programmes can be retained. She also concedes to feeling pressurised, as other parents load homework and enrichment classes on their child, in hopes of preparing him or her for a primary school lifestyle.
As the Ministry of Education (MOE) and Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports set about their review, these individuals and their concerns are worth looking into.
INCLUDE THOSE WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
In the expansive pre-school landscape here, parents of children with special needs must trawl forums or rely on word of mouth to find a suitable kindergarten. More help can be given to such parents - for instance, by providing a one-stop information portal.
Many of such parents end up turning to expensive pre-schools or ones that are far from their home, or signing up their child for extra enrichment lessons.
As the number of such children grow in the coming years, the Government will have to study how operators can include special needs pre-schoolers with their peers in the same classroom. For example, special education training could be given to teachers at the pre-school level, and schools could be equipped with special education teachers and experts like speech therapists.
One benefit that might result: More parents would be encouraged to seek early intervention, benefitting the child in his or her later years.
LIFT THE PROFESSION'S IMAGE
Be they pre-schools that are run by Government-supported operators, welfare organisations or private parties, one woe they have in common is the lack of trained early childhood educators. And it is not all about the pay, as Modern Montessori International Group CEO T Chandroo noted, for salaries have gone up over the years.
Recently, I did a two-day stint as a pre-school assistant in a NTUC First Campus centre, for the purposes of an article. My friends' response - "what was it like to be a nanny?", they asked - goes to show that much work is needed to improve the image of kindergarten teachers.
As Lien Foundation Chief Executive Lee Poh Wah put it: "MOE made teaching one of the most desired and prestigious professions; we should do the same for pre-school educators".
He proposed measures like more stringent selection of teachers and improving working conditions. In past interviews, pre-school educators said they hoped to find themselves treated on par with their MOE counterparts, including being offered Government-endorsed awards which carry a greater degree of prestige and public recognition.
One resource that has been under-tapped is male recruits. Male kindergarten teachers that I spoke to feel the biggest obstacle is public perception. Campaigns to rebrand the image of pre-school educators should thus profile male teachers as well.
It would also be helpful to establish standard ground-rules for the hiring and managing of male teachers. This would give centres some guidance while providing parents with some level of assurance.
SMOOTHEN THE P1 TRANSITION
Much has been said about uneven quality in pre-school education, as highlighted by the recent Lien Foundation study ranking the sector here a dismal 29th out of 45 countries.
But to enhance the overall experience of pre-school education, a smoother transition from kindergarten to Primary 1 is needed. This point is made by National Institute of Education (NIE) early childhood expert Karuppiah Nirmala, who sees a need to create a "platform for pre-schools and primary schools to work together" on curriculum and teaching methods.
Other possibilities mooted by practitioners include re-launching the 1990s MOE pilot to house pre-primary classes in primary schools. I was a beneficiary of this measure, and it certainly helped familiarise me with the environs and what primary school was like.
Another suggestion is to have "buddy" primary schools and pre-schools organise regular, structured orientation programmes for those in Kindergarten 2.
Looking ahead to a "comprehensive kindergarten curriculum", it is important to tread with caution. Every child grows at a different speed and has wide-ranging interests in the early years. There is no real need to insist that every child be able to brush their teeth at age two or count up to 20 by age four.
Parents should be given access to the curriculum details, so that they have the knowledge to decide on the learning style best suited for their child.
DO MORE HOMEWORK FIRST
It is important not to rush into implementing solutions, said NIE early childhood faculty Sirene Lim, who urges studying what other countries have done "and learning from their ways to craft our own solutions suited to our context".
One possible area to examine, is whether the type of pre-school experience has an impact on the child's later education. Primary schools interviewed have said they do not track this, but pre-school operators and observers believe that such studies could help parents make better decisions and define what a quality pre-school experience means, in our context.
Similarly, given the wide spectrum of programme offerings here - from the Montessori to Reggio Emilia-inspired methods - studies could be done on the compatibility between curriculum types and the local education system and multi-cultural environment.
The pedagogy of learning through play, which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited, should be given serious attention to, in order to better convince parents of the idea.
Most importantly, such studies on pre-school education must be made available to the public, with parents made a part of the discussions, if we are to raise society's knowledge and awareness.
Source: TODAY (Online), mediacorp