By Prof. Sharon Lynn Kagan and Tim Sutton
Last week, the Government’s National Budget for 2019 was read and, commendably, it makes solid and needed strides for young children. Clearly, the Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera and those involved in the Budget preparation fully understand the unmistakable and irrevocable importance of the earliest years of a child’s life to their long-term development and to the advancement of this country.
In fact, forward-thinking countries in this region and beyond have demonstrated the value of investing early in a child’s life to the overall social and societal well-being. With this Budget and the emphasis it proffers, Sri Lanka happily joins those ranks.
Without reiterating the substantial scientific evidence of the wide benefits of investment in early childhood development (ECD), no country that understands this expects parents and families to be solely responsible.
Rather, they recognise that the most important, and arguably the toughest of life’s jobs – that of advancing the wellbeing of children to lead active, responsible, productive, participatory lives – is a shared responsibility, led by parents and families but importantly supported by societal institutions, including governments, educational and health bodies, and religious and civil service organisations.
Only by working collaboratively can the entwined goals of improved children’s development and accelerated societal advancement be successfully achieved.
The 2019 Budget Proposal does a commendable job of fostering improved prosperity for present and future generations while honouring the central, important role of the family. This focus on ECD is an area UNICEF and others who care deeply for the children and the future of Sri Lanka have been advocating for over many years, including at last year’s landmark, ‘Building Brains, Building Futures’ ECD Forum in Colombo, which was organised by the Department of National Planning with support from UNICEF.
But perhaps most remarkably it takes great strides in not only acknowledging the comparative neglect of preschool education in Sri Lanka in the past, but in advancing it for the future. Through encouraging both private and public-sector investments, the Budget proposal recognises the need for improving direct services to young children and creating the supports that enable these services to be of the needed quality to provide real, long term value.
This is a critical step, yet it presents a new and important question that Sri Lanka must address. That is, how do we ensure that every child, especially those from the poorest households or the most isolated communities, is able to access at least one year of these lives-changing preschool education services? There are many proven solutions. We must accelerate discussions to implement these in coming months.
The 2019 Budget Proposal understands that quality services do not emerge overnight; they must be strategically nurtured, planned and invested in. Wisely, the Budget Proposal for Preschool improvement and expansion begins with the need to define and regulate preschool standards, by prioritising a national preschool curriculum framework, the Budget Proposal understands the centrality of such documents.
But it also recognises that written documents alone cannot alter practice in real life and in real time; rather, they must be brought to life by the dedicated adults in children’s lives. Parents and families are children’s first and most important teachers, but also actual preschool teachers play a critical role. As such, the Budget recognises the need for better preschool teacher preparation, training, and working conditions, recognising that any organisations most important assets is the quality of its people.
Whilst we will continue to advocate for further, much-needed investments in early childhood development, including in the areas of health and protection, the increased focus and investment on quality preschool services is positive, commendable and a much-needed step in the right direction for Sri Lanka and its children. Now let us ensure that these benefits reach every child, especially the poorest and hardest to reach.
(Sharon Lynn Kagan is a Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy Teachers College, Columbia University and Professor Adjunct Child Study Center, Yale University. Tim Sutton is a Representative of UNICEF Sri Lanka)