Educational reform: More investment in pre-primary


Governments allocate many times more to higher education than pre-primary education, even though these expenditures overwhelmingly benefit wealthier students. This is to the detriment of the most disadvantaged

By Rattan Khushiram

In my latest article titled “Free Tertiary Education for All: A Blunder” published in this column on 25th January 2019, where I took the stand that a fee-paying tertiary education is not necessarily against the interests of the poor, I had concluded on the following note: “We are instead putting the cart before the horse. Let’s first of all ensure that with greater efficiency of expenditures and a strong sense of priorities in government spending, and with some private finance leveraging, for the primary, secondary and vocational levels, we are able to provide a larger and talented potential pool for tertiary education, both academic and vocational, and skilled workers for the world of work. That’s the challenge of the moment.”

Franzenia daycare centre, Helsinki. Photograph: Karin Hannukainen/University of Helsinki

Unbelievably and mistakenly, I had omitted pre-primary education, the bedrock of the whole education system and the point where learning skills can be most successfully embedded. Early childhood interventions support four key developmental domains — physical, cognitive, linguistic and socio-emotional development. Research is clear that high-quality preschooling leads to educational, social and economic success for all children and stronger, more lasting academic and societal gains.

However, while progress is being made in some areas, children’s early education is too often neglected across the world, putting millions of children at a disadvantage even before they enter school. While more money is needed overall for the education sector as a whole, current levels of spending illustrate that government spending on education in many countries is skewed towards the richest and most educated students. Governments allocate many times more to higher education than pre-primary education, even though these expenditures overwhelmingly benefit wealthier students. This is to the detriment of the most disadvantaged. Firstly, they are the least likely to progress to higher levels of education. And, secondly, insufficient public spending on pre-primary education puts it out of reach of the poorest families who are unable to afford the costs entailed.Here, Government is not only spending too little on education, a mere 3.5% of GDP; pre-primary education accounts for around 0.06% of GDP while most of the advanced, especially Nordic countries, spend around 1 to 2% of GDP on pre-primary education.

Government is already spending Rs 1.4 billion on tertiary education — five times more than on pre-primary, and its new proposal for free tertiary education will further accentuate this bias of neglecting investment in pre-primary education in favour of higher levels of education.

But we are not only missing out in terms of investing in Pre-kindergarten (Pre-K), but on radical changes in pre-primary education, where the whole education “miracle” starts to take shape. The emphasis is on creative play. Children need time to play and be physically active. It’s a time for creativity. “Neuroscientific research shows that playtime is critical to developing the cognitive, creative and communications skills needed in the future, and yet time set aside for play is being squeezed everywhere… Closing these “play gaps” in access to play will support deeper learning, which science tells us is when “learning is joyful, experimental, social, meaningful, hands-on and minds-on.” Carefully organized play helps develop qualities such as attention span, perseverance, concentration and problem solving, which at the age of four are stronger predictors of academic success than the age at which a child learns to read.

“Play, nonetheless, is a serious business, at least for the teachers, because it gives children vital skills in how to learn. Franzenia has 44 staff working with children, of whom 16 are kindergarten teachers (who have each completed a three-year specialist degree), and 28 nursery nurses (who have a two-year vocational qualification). The staff-child ratio is 1:4 for under-threes and 1:7 for the older children. Great care is taken to plan not just what kind of play takes place – there is a mix of “free play” and teacher-directed play – but to assess how children play. The children’s development is constantly evaluated. “It’s not just random play, it’s learning through play,” says Tiina Marjoniemi of the Franzenia Daycare Centre in Finland.

The essential factors of the learning environment include interaction between the teacher and each child and that between the children, different operating methods and learning assignments.

For our children to be able to take advantage of such creative plays, we need to invest heavily in such high quality preschools in terms of equipment, technology, training of teachers (who have a three-year specialist degree in Finland) and nursery nurses. The groundwork for good school performance begins earlier, long before children enter the primary education system. That’s why we had argued that the priority of the moment for an inclusive education system is not free tertiary education, which is a blunder, but higher investment in pre-primary education.

* * *

The Competition Commission Amnesty Programme: What next?

The Competition Commission of Mauritius (CCM) has released its first batch of decisions for the Resale Price Maintenance (RPM) amnesty programme. Some 102 companies had signed up to the Competition Commission one-off Amnesty RPM Programme between 05 June 2017 and 20 October 2017.

RPM is a particular form of restrictive business practice whereby a supplier restricts the ability of its resellers to reduce prices of its products. RPM is therefore a pricing restriction and can take different forms, such as the imposition of a fixed or minimum price or a price range at which the product must be sold. Resellers may voluntarily agree to the price set by the supplier or may be coerced into doing so by the supplier.

The media release shows that of the 102 applications received, 36 were from company groups featuring in The Top 100 companies. Most of the applications (52%) came from suppliers/distributors (operating at the upstream level of the supply chain). 43% of the companies were generating above Rs 1 billion turnover, of which 68% were from resellers. RPM was also prevalent among smaller companies with a turnover of less than Rs 100 million which constituted 25% of the total applicants.

The competition authorities are jubilating because of the high number of applications received by the Competition Commission which they consider as a confirmation of the success of their enforcement strategy of opting for a collaborative approach, instead of the usual stringent investigative procedures.

But that’s the easy way out and we, customers, cannot let the CCM off the hook so easily. We want to hold them more accountable for the level of competition in the economy. After having been cleared off the 102 companies, including the corporates, of their crimes of having cheated us, the consumers, and hiked their abnormal profits at our expense, we need more than the commitment that they will be implementing compliance measures at their end in exchange for immunity. Otherwise it will be just a licence for them to continue fleecing us till the next amnesty programme.

Our competition watchdog – a competition regulator which is a proud custodian of such an important role of making the economy work better for all – cannot restrict itself to its present low-key and toothless role. Competition policy should be made a political priority and more resources allocated for policing competition and to systematically open up markets that appear to be closed or rigged.

We need more of dynamism and openness from the CCM – in terms of close monitoring and effective enforcement and regular reports on the state of competition in the economy. We want to see more cases being investigated and brought to courts, actions against cartels, policing of mergers and dealing with dominant firms that abuse their position. In short, A CCM that not only barks but bites and makes a difference to consumers.

* Published in print edition on 8 February 2019

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