This is the third and last blog in a mini-series on “The Preschool Entitlement”, a locally adaptable policy instrument to expand and improve preschool education. The first blog focused on the rate of participation in preprimary education and the urgent need, almost worldwide, to accelerate its expansion. The second blog outlined what the authors mean by “The Preschool Entitlement” and how it ensures three hours of quality preschool education per day while stimulating local initiatives to provide additional hours of childcare. This third and last blog focuses on implementation, outlining the phases in this process, emphasizing the importance of coordination and guidance, and highlighting some of the bottlenecks that must be dealt with.
In our first two NORRAG blogs about the Preschool Entitlement, we sketched an open preschool system, in which a range of organizations can apply to obtain the necessary accreditation to provide a government funded child development program of 600 hours per year (3 hours per day, 5 days per week, 40 weeks per year) during the last two or three years before Grade 1. These potential providers include not only pre-existing preschool institutions and primary schools, but also non-traditional providers such as NGOs, community centers, private companies, faith-based organizations, cooperatives, national associations, et cetera. This is intended to spark initiatives to provide additional hours of childcare – over and above the three hours guaranteed by the government – for those families that need this. In this blog we emphasize not the “theory” involved, but the process whereby such a system could be institutionalized – especially the first few critical steps.
It is clear that such an open system requires a phased introduction and close monitoring at each step. Piloting the system in a small number of well-confined municipalities can pave the way for consecutive waves of municipalities, creating a gradual process that allows the government to develop a budget line that matches the expansion. Gradual implementation is also likely to be necessary to allow the teacher training system to cope with growing demand.
In the majority of countries, if not in all, there are already many small or medium suppliers of preschool services, of many types and levels, including government but also NGOs and others. These show a great deal of natural variation in governance, costs, and results. As a way to jump-start the process quickly, it seems convenient to round up the evidence created by this natural variation and existing experimentation, to determine a key issue: what are the inputs and processes used by current providers who are providing a good level of quality but at relatively low cost. That is, what is the profile (or several) of provision that can offer best value for money, if turned into a sort of protocol that can be replicated under the incentives of a subsidy? In particular, it is important that the cost profile match the requisites for registration and accreditation, as it would be counterproductive to have accreditation requirements that cannot be met at the subsidy point that is to be offered. Paying attention to how the most effective current providers manage this seems a safe starting point.
Both in the pilot phase and beyond, a dedicated agency must be appointed to guide the process of determining the initial profile of cost and quality of services. Some will advocate to lower cost, some will advocate to increase inputs and thus costs. A balance must be found, which requires guided policy dialogue that can lead to the emergence of an ideal input, process, and cost profile that can produce good quality. This should be a local process-oriented NGO, guided on its turn by national and international experts with experience not only in preschool education but also in social brokering at community level.
In addition it seems important to get a better handle on needs and possibilities. Thus, in a sample of communities participating either in the natural experimentation that already exists, or in purposeful piloting, a set of consultative meetings should kick off the brokering process to determine, first, the need for additional hours of childcare (how many parents work most of the day; what do they earn; what are the main employers and livelihoods) and second, the potential stakeholders and providers. Stakeholders can be the community leadership, an agricultural cooperative, the village market authority, a private company, an NGO, et cetera. If the capacity of pre-existing providers seems insufficient to meet the estimated needs of families, stakeholders themselves can be asked to consider the role of provider. Thus, an NGO or community center can attempt to obtain the accreditation, though it is clear that thorough screening and extra guidance is needed in such cases.
The accreditation process deserves special attention. First, presumably there would be some sort of Agency or Board or Committee constituted to provide this accreditation. The nature of this “institution” could perhaps be established as part of the process of policy dialogue mentioned above, or in some other way. Accreditation is indispensable in an open system that invites new providers to contribute to the expansion of preschool education. But if achieving the accreditation would appear to be very challenging, it may become a barrier rather than a gateway to the system. In fact, it might even put pre-existing providers out of business. In our second blog we proposed, therefore, a period of leniency. This implies that old and new providers alike can obtain pre-accreditation status based on an assessment of some basic quality criteria. One might think of an obligation to meet certain standards in safety and hygiene; to have at least a few qualified and experienced teachers in the team; to have a minimum set of learning materials available; and to use an approved curriculum.
Preschool institutions with such a pre-accreditation status would then be allowed to operate (while receiving the per capita funding from the government) for three or four years. At the end of this period of leniency, the preschool institution must have achieved the full accreditation status. In many cases, this may require guidance from experts who visit the preschool institution regularly, observe lessons, coach the staff, advise the Board. This can be a role for the Inspectorate, District Education Offices or similar institutions, although two things must be kept in mind.
This “formative” role of ongoing guidance may need to be separated from the more summative role of assessment (to decide about accreditation) to avoid that assessors judge their own performance as guides. Moreover, per capita funding systems are vulnerable to the practice of reporting ghost students in attempts to maximize the subsidy. The capacity for these three roles – guidance, assessment, monitoring of attendance – is often insufficient in many countries, even in the current situation with relatively fewer suppliers than might exist under a regularized subsidy or entitlement. Investing in the capacity for quality enhancement and assessment in tandem with system expansion is therefore a condition for implementing the Preschool Entitlement.
Another potential bottleneck is the availability of teachers and caregivers. Qualified preschool teachers are already scarce in many countries, while unregistered preschools may operate under the radar with unknown numbers of unqualified teachers. This cannot be tolerated within the proposed open preschool system since the accreditation process would lose credibility if, after the period of leniency, some preschools would continue to work with unqualified teachers. Therefore, it may be necessary to open up alternative pathways towards the teaching qualification, in addition to (not instead of) regular teacher training courses. For example, some of the teachers in the abovementioned unregistered preschools may be unqualified but not inexperienced. In fact, they may be considered “competent” so that accreditation of prior learning can be applied on their pathway to the qualification, as well as accelerated courses offered by official training institutions an NGOs. This can happen more easily in countries where there is a national qualifications framework that recognizes prior learning.
Another alternative itinerary towards the teacher qualification is by gaining practical experience in roles such as carer and class-assistant. For example, if a tea plantation makes a space available for providing the three-hour preschool program in the morning, mothers and older siblings can take turns caring for the children during the rest of the day. This role does not require a qualification, but with some training from an NGO, these mothers and siblings can deliver quality care and take the first step towards a qualification. The same can be said about the role of class-assistant during the three-hour program.
It will always be a balancing act: to expand an education system ambitiously while safeguarding quality at the same time. But the combination of clear accreditation standards and generous guidance to those who want to achieve them, may be part of the solution.
Jan van Ravens is an independent policy advisor, formerly affiliated to the Child Study Center at Yale University. He supported the development of policies for young children in about 30 low- and middle-income countries worldwide, and wrote a number of global reports that can be found on www.janvanravens.com.
Luis Crouch is a Senior Economist Emeritus with RTI International. He works on school finance, early and foundational education, education statistics, system analysis, and the political economy of systemic reforms. He has previously worked for the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education. He has worked in all regions of the world for extended periods.