- THE POLICY CONTEXT
- Importance of Early Childhood Development
Early childhood refers to that period in a child’s life between birth and eight years of age. It is one of the most important phases in a child’s life, as it is the period of the most rapid brain development. During this stage, character is formed and the foundation is laid for many basic social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills that are used throughout life. A child’s ability to adequately develop language skills and mathematical skills and the skills required for appropriate social and emotional interaction with peers are all influenced by the foundation that is laid in these early years. A failure to adequately develop these skills could lead to grade repetition in school and eventual poor academic performance, with a high possibility of anti-social behaviour to follow.
Research in many parts of the world has found a direct link between poor early childhood development experiences in children and later involvement in crime, low paid employment and recurring poverty.
An adequate early childhood experience for a child is dependent on the child being exposed to warm, caring environments with caregivers that the child trusts and that provide opportunities for ongoing stimulation and holistic development. There is no preferred setting where such environments have to be created and they can be effectively developed in a variety of settings including the home, formal day care centres and preschools and community-based play groups. What is important is that the people in these settings have the necessary knowledge, skills and materials to engage the children in developmentally appropriate activities.
Research in many parts of the world has found that children that have been exposed to these settings demonstrate improved social skills, perform better in school and achieve more in life, than those who have not been exposed to these settings.
- Early Childhood Programming in Antigua and Barbuda
Formal early childhood programming in Antigua and Barbuda dates back to December 15, 1915 when the St. John’s Day Care was established (as a daily crèche). It was initiated on a voluntary basis by private citizens and voluntary organisations with the Government becoming involved in the 1970s by establishing five (5) crèches to accommodate the children of working mothers. This was followed in the 1980s with increased involvement by the Ministry of Education in the sector, with an emphasis on training of teachers and caregivers and parenting outreach.
The current situation regarding early childhood programming in Antigua and Barbuda leaves a lot to be desired. Only 46% of the children of eligible age participate in the formal early childhood programmes that are available – 28% of the children two years old and under and 73% of the children between ages three and five. 72% of these programs are owned by private operators, 15% by the church and 10% by the Government.
A survey of the quality of care being provided found that there were significant weaknesses in the quality of the programming including provisions for health and safety practices, meals and snacks, use of books and pictures, use of language to develop reasoning skills, informal use of language, encouraging children to communicate, availability of indoor space and play equipment and provisions for the professional needs of staff.
Addressing these problems is a distinct challenge as there are no prescribed standards that guide the operation of these childcare facilities. The Early Childhood Education Training Centre (ECETC) has developed a basic set of standards which are contained in a document titled “Basic Physical Specifications in the Preschool and Day Care Centres in Antigua and Barbuda”. This document was developed in 1983 and revised in 2004. It provides for safety and security, minimum space requirements, child-staff ratio, health and sanitation, emergency procedures, furniture and furnishings, record-keeping, learning materials. However, these standards do not have any legal basis and the ECETC does not have the authority to enforce them.
There is a Childcare and Protection Act (No. 29) of 2003 which provides for the establishment of a Childcare and Protection Agency. The Act gives this Agency the responsibility to enforce prescribed standards and other requirements for care of children who are in childcare facilities or any other educational setting in order to promote the best development of the child which is compatible with early childhood development goals, primary health and public health requirements. However, no action has been taken to enforce the provisions of the Act.
This absence of legal oversight is compounded by the fact that formal caregiver qualifications are generally low, with only 30% of the persons who interacted with children having a formal early childhood qualification. An additional 18% have attended in-service workshops organised by the Government of Antigua.
Overall responsibility for the development of the sector rests with the Ministry of Education, and is exercised through the Early Childhood Educational and Training Centre. The ECETC is headed by an Education Officer in charge of administration of Early Childhood Education, who is supported by five (5) Early Childhood Field Officers. These officers monitor and assist early childhood service providers in the field and teach in the training programmes and parenting workshops offered by the Centre. There are other agencies that provide services to children in this age group e.g. Ministry of Health, but there is no institutional framework that requires that they work together in the interest of developing a coordinated approach to children’s programming.
Improvements in the early childhood experience of the children in Antigua and Barbuda will therefore require strategies and actions that address children’s ability to access early childhood services and that provide for the quality of the services delivered in the programmes to be of a standard that will be beneficial to the children participating in the programmes.
- EARLY CHILDHOOD POLICY FRAMEWORK
- Vision Statement
The Vision that has been proposed is:
All children in Antigua and Barbuda are provided with the opportunities to develop to their fullest potential.
- Goals and Objectives
The Strategic Objective of the Policy is to ensure that all children in Antigua and Barbuda are adequately prepared for entry into primary school.
Specific goals that would be pursued in the context of this strategic objective are:
- To provide equal opportunities for participation in high quality early childhood programming for all children between birth and eight years old.
- To strengthen services and interventions in early childhood that will improve the opportunities for positive outcomes for children between birth and eight, including those with special needs.
- To provide training and certification and improve terms and conditions of work in early childhood services.
- To empower parents and other caregivers in children’s lives as the “active agents” of environmental influence during early childhood.
- To determine and implement the most cost effective strategies for achieving beneficial and comprehensive early childhood outcomes.
- Key Strategies
The strategic objectives and specific goals will be achieved through the implementation of seven (7) inter-related strategies that will be implemented as an integrated package of measures, viz:
- Increase access to early stimulation and early education services for all children from birth to eight.
- Develop and implement a regulatory framework for the provision of early childhood services, based on minimum service delivery standards and a strong compliance mechanism.
- Strengthen the quality of the learning environment in early childhood centres.
- Provide opportunities for children with special needs to participate in inclusive early childhood experiences.
- Establish and maintain teacher training and development programmes for early childhood workers.
- Provide financial support and incentives for the development of the early childhood development services.
- Strengthen parents understanding of the importance of early childhood development and of their participation in their children’s programmes.
- Formalise structures and processes for the integrated management of the sector.
- SPECIFIC ACTIONS AND TARGETS FOR IMPLEMENTING THE POLICY FRAMEWORK 2008 – 2010
The actions in support of these strategies will evolve during the implementation process. An initial list of actions and targets are described in this section. This listing does not represent any prioritization of the actions to be taken as these are not seen as discrete actions but, rather as part of a package of responses. It also does not preclude the initiation of other actions that are consistent with the policy framework.
- Increase access to early stimulation and early education for all children from birth to eight
This strategy seeks to improve overall access to early childhood services for the birth to five cohort from the current level of 38% to at least 63% by the end of 2011. This will require increasing the birth to two participation from 28% to at least 60% by providing access to 1,505 more children (from 1,330 to 2,835) and the preschool participation from 73% to 100% by providing access to 870 more children (from 2,356 to 3,226). The programming for the birth to two cohort include participation in early childhood stimulation services delivered through a Home or Community Visiting programme.
The actions that will be undertaken to implement this strategy are premised on the principle that private sector operators will continue to play a lead role in the provision of services to the sector, but that the government will intervene to ensure that the most vulnerable in the population also have the ability to access early childhood services.
(a) Birth to Two Cohort
- Forging a stronger partnership with health professionals in the clinics where field officers could conduct sessions in stimulation with mothers and caregivers of the young ones at antenatal clinic.
- Introduce a home or community visiting early stimulation programme in poor communities where parents do not have access to early childhood services. This programme should be coordinated through the Ministry of Health. Family practitioners, as well as Early Childhood Field Officers, can visit the home and make recommendations for early stimulation. Additional Health Care Workers and Field Officers would be needed to facilitate this additional service.
- Provide assistance and incentives to assist working parents in meeting the cost of day care services and early stimulation. This could include income tax deductions.
- Educate parents as to what kinds of cost effective materials they can create with everyday household material to create play utensils for their children. That education can be done through the Clinics and the mass media.
- Encourage community organisations, including the faith-based organisations, to assist in promoting and providing early stimulation by working along with the Ministry of Education, to bring about changes in individual homes.
- Three to Five Cohort
- Amend the Education Act to provide a legal basis for early childhood education, but do not make it mandatory.
- Encourage parents, through targeted educational activities, to strive to ensure that children entering primary school have attained the development outcomes expected for children who participate in a quality early childhood programme.
- Provide incentives for working parents in enabling them to meet the cost of pre school services. This could include income tax deductions and participation in the government’s uniform grant program.
- Provide subventions to early childhood operators to cover the cost to parents on low or no income who cannot afford the cost of preschool services.
- Use excess space in primary schools to provide preschool services and/or lease to private providers for the purpose of providing preschool services.
- Facilitate the transition from preschool to primary school.
- Implement a regulatory framework for the provision of early childhood services, based on minimum service delivery standards and a strong compliance mechanism
This strategy seeks to introduce a strong regulatory environment that will provide confidence to parents that their children will be adequately provided for in early childhood centres.
It seeks to have all required legislative amendments in place by the end of December 2008, so that all early childhood centres can be licensed from January 2009.
The actions that will be taken to implement this strategy include:
- Publication of Early Childhood Minimum Standards as regulations under Section 80 of the Education Act 2002.
- Distribution of Early Childhood Minimum Standards to all early childhood centres.
- Regular monitoring of all early childhood facilities to determine if they meet the provisions of the Minimum Standards. A grading system for assessment of centers would be established and all center operators would be familiarized with that system.
- Issuing of formal licenses to all early childhood facilities that meet the established minimum standards, with all licenses to be renewed annually.
- Development of remedial plans specifying required actions and time frames for facilities that do not meet the minimum standards.
- Formal establishment of a regulatory authority and related ongoing monitoring and compliance processes.
- Strengthen the quality of the learning environment in early childhood centres
This strategy is central to achieving the desired outcomes for children. It is related in part to the introduction and effective management of the minimum standards. However these have to be supported by other actions including:
- Design and implementation of an early childhood curriculum that is culturally appropriate to the needs of the children of Antigua and Barbuda by the end of 2008.
- Provision of incentives to early childhood operators to enable them to acquire and access the materials needed for effective implementation of the curriculum. Measures will be put in place to ensure that the materials acquired under this incentive program are used solely for early childhood development, and penalties for abusing the incentives will be established.
- Identification of existing centres that can be used to demonstrate to parents and operators the requirements for a high quality early childhood facility by the end of 2008.
- Establishment of four model centres by the government to demonstrate to parents and operators the requirements for a high quality early childhood facility starting in 2009. Where feasible, these centres could be located at primary schools that have excess space.
- Strengthened supervision and monitoring of the quality of the early childhood learning environments by field officers from the Ministry of Education.
- On-going workshops and collaborative activities aimed at addressing specific deficiencies in the learning environments identified by the Quality Survey report and by the field officers during their routine monitoring visits.
- Provide opportunities for vulnerable children and children with special needs to participate in inclusive early childhood experiences
This strategy is aimed at ensuring that children with Special Needs are not excluded from the developmental process. It is recognized that inclusion of these children presents unique challenges and the actions that will be taken to address this include:
- Provide specifically targeted support for the participation of vulnerable children into existing early childhood programs.
- Development of clear criteria with reference to classification or reclassification for participation of children with special needs on the principles that:
- Special needs should be separated from disability; and
- Inclusion of children with disabilities should depend on the level and nature of the disability e.g. there should be inclusion for children with physical disabilities, while children who are mentally challenged should be sent to a special school.
- Establish a dedicated centre for special needs children who are mentally challenged. This centre should be staffed with trained teachers.
- Provide training to all teachers, and advanced training to at least one teacher in each centre to identify and work with students who are vulnerable and those with special needs.
- Provide incentives for retrofitting existing centres to meet the requirements for accepting children with special needs.
- Ensure that new facilities are designed to accommodate children with special needs.
- Establish and maintain teacher training and development for early childhood workers
This is another crucial activity, as the ability to design and manage a stimulating learning environment is related in part to the knowledge and skills of the caregiver and teacher.
The strategy here is to introduce ongoing training mechanisms that will increase the number of teachers who are trained in early childhood from the current level of 30% to 60% by the end of 2010. The actions that will be taken to implement this include:
- Introduction of the mandatory requirement that practitioners should have at least three CXC passes including Mathematics, Social Studies and English Language and should have completed the basic ECETC training (1 year) in early childhood development, before working in early childhood centres.
- Institutionalisation of the Associate Degree in teacher education with a mandatory course in Early Childhood at the Antigua State College.
- Upgrading of the ECETC training programme to NCTVET Level 1 and the award of the Caribbean Vocational Qualification (CVQ) to all who successfully complete the course with effect from September 2009.
- Assessment of past graduates of the ECETC programme to determine eligibility for CVQ Level I and Level II certification and the award of certificates to the successful graduates by the end of December 2009.
- Early childhood education should be offered as a vocational option in secondary schools using the NCTVET CVQ model, so that the young people can become cognizant of the importance of early childhood care and education and acquire the basic skills required for working in the sector.
- Early childhood practitioners to have mandated hours of refresher courses and retraining every (5) years after obtaining initial certification. These refresher courses could be offered by the ECETC or the national organisation responsible for training and development. Incentives in the form of financial assistance and scholarships would be provided to assist practitioners in this regard.
- Provision of technical support for strengthening the organisation and operation of the Antigua and Barbuda Early Childhood Association from September 2008.
- Provide financial support and incentives for the development of the early childhood sector
Access to financial resources is central to the success of this policy. However, the cost data to guide government decision-making in this area is not available. The actions that will be taken to implement this strategy will therefore include:
- Conducting a study to determine the cost of delivering early childhood services in Antigua and Barbuda and the current means by which these services are being financed. This study should be completed by December 2008.
- Providing incentives to early childhood operators to improve the quality of their learning environment by reduce duties and taxes on materials for early childhood programming.
- Providing access to low interest loans through the Antigua and Barbuda Development Bank and other relevant institutions so that owners can upgrade or provide more materials for their schools;
- Providing incentives for private sector operators to assist early childhood centers by providing support e.g. sponsoring activities and assisting in purchasing materials/equipment for schools. Such incentives can include tax credits or tax rebates.
- Strengthening government support to the sector , by:
- Providing assistance with staff salaries;
- Providing financial assistance with training of staff;
- Extending school meals program and uniform grant to early childhood centers;
- Providing educational materials and books through the Board of Education;
- Exempting early childhood operators from corporate taxes;
- Providing subsidies for early childhood centers in low income communities;
- Sourcing and dissemination information on best practices and finances for early childhood centers; and
- Encouraging corporate citizens and NGO’s to participate in financing early childhood education.
- Educate parents on the importance of early childhood development and encourage their participation in early childhood programmes.
Parental participation and support are essential for their children to reap maximum benefits from early childhood programmes. The perception in Antigua and Barbuda is that parents are not very knowledgeable about the elements of a good early childhood programme and the importance of such programmes for the development of their children.
It is therefore important that parents be educated about the importance of early childhood education and the actions to achieve this will include:
- Media presentations should be made so that persons would become more aware of the importance of early childhood education.
- Televised promotions to inform the public about early childhood development.
- Mandatory provisions for parents to attend a minimum number of parent education workshops organised by the school that their child attends, or by the ECETC.
- Parent education programmes at ante-natal clinics to teach the importance of early childhood education. Parents would be educated about home-activities that parents can use to provide the right stimulation for their children at an early age. The staff at the clinics would include a trained individual who will be responsible for providing information to parents on the importance of early childhood education.
- Special activities within child developmental centers such as kite-flying, sports days and picnics which should incorporate parents.
- Workplace seminars on some of the issues surrounding early childhood education.
- Work with the local newspapers to introduce a section “Information to Parents” giving tips on parenting and early childhood education.
- Development and distribution of informational materials e.g. pamphlets, on different areas of early childhood for dissemination in public areas such as pharmacies, clinics, dentist offices, and the like.
- Formalise structures and processes for the integrated management of the sector
The implementation of this policy will require inputs from a wide variety of players. It is therefore important that clear structures be established for management and coordination of the process. The actions that are recommended to implement this strategy include:
- Establishment by Cabinet decision of a multi-sectoral committee to oversee the implementation of the policy and regulatory framework by the end of September 2008. The Committee’s membership should include:
- Education representatives – This should include a senior officer from the Ministry e.g. Permanent Secretary or Chief Education Officer and an ECETC representative who should be able to provide information on the day-to-day functioning of the sector;
- Health care representative – representative from Central Board of Health or community nursing services or nutritionist;
- A representative from the Ministry of Social Transformation – important in addressing issues related to social services, child right, parenting, and the like;
- Representative from the Ministry of Legal Affairs;
- Representative from the Barbuda Council;
- Someone from the Ministry of Justice – someone from the police or fire department;
- PTA representative – one parent;
- Representative from Civil Society;
- Representative from the Ministry of Finance;
- Representative of preschool operators (on an observer basis until a representative National Association is formally established, at which time the representative will become a full voting member).
- Formalize and strengthen processes for the integrated management of the sector by:
- Collaborating with representative from the Central Board of Health, Community Nurses, Community Nutritionists, Social Transformation Field Officers, and the like.
- Information sharing – immunizations, data collected included in annual reports e.g., number of children in day care facilities, pre-schools in district, number of children in pre-schools, information garnered from home visits and day care/pre-school visit examining general condition, health and safety. This would ensure better utilization of government resources and prevent duplication of efforts.
- Redesign of the strategic focus and operations of the Early Childhood Educational and Training Centre to provide the capacity for the day-to-day management of the development of the sector through the implementation of the policy and regulatory framework. This will require restructuring and reassignment of staff to perform the regulatory, monitoring and training functions identified by the policy, and the consequent reassessment of job contents, development of new job descriptions and review of terms of employment and general working conditions.
It will also include the introduction of data collection and management systems that will enable the performance of children to be tracked traced from daycare to preschool to primary school and the efficacy of the early childhood programming to be assessed. This should be initiated in September 2008, and should be treated with the highest priority.
- MONITORING AND EVALUATION OF THE POLICY IMPLEMENTATION
The responsibility for the implementation of this Early Childhood Policy will rest with the Ministry of Education, acting through the multi-sectoral committee referred to in Section 3.8.
This Committee will review annual Action Plans submitted by the ECETC for implementing the Policy and will make recommendations thereon. It will also monitor progress made on an annual basis. The first of these Action Plans will be submitted by December 2008 for implementation in the remainder of 2008/09 academic year. The Reports from these annual monitoring exercises will be submitted to the Minister of Education, no later than two months after the end of each academic year i.e. no later than the end of October.
A full evaluation and review of the Policy Framework will be done every three years.
 Data as of February 2007
 Vulnerable children are children affected by and infected with HIV/AIDS; children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned
 Physically and mentally challenged children; children with sensory impairments