A crisis in early-childhood education undermines the nation

There are several steps to improve early-childhood education, not just to meet minimum standards, but to ensure that global best practices are integrated and enforced. Here are a few.

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When a nursery was shut down for failing to comply with the standards set by the Ministry of Social Affairs, the director simply found a new sponsor and opened up another one. That story, reported in The National last week, featured the quote: "New building, new staff, new tools - same director."

The Ministry says that the loophole has been closed in the sponsorship system that allowed that sleight of hand, and that anyone seeking to open a nursery must submit the director's CV. Although this is a step in the right direction, the issues we face in the UAE when it comes to early-childhood education run much deeper than a resume.

It is important to see where we stand. A recent study by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the consultancy Arabian Child found that "85 per cent of the staff within nurseries in the UAE were unqualified".

In short, most nursery staff member looking after your child is not qualified. With research showing the critical importance of early childhood education, numbers like this simply will not do.

There are several steps to improve early-childhood education, not just to meet minimum standards, but to ensure that global best practices are integrated and enforced.

Judging by the survey, one could ask the question: "How has so much slipped through the cracks?"

The answer boils down to policy and regulatory oversight. The requirements in the UAE Nurseries Investors Guide, which comes under the Ministry of Social Affairs, include several surprises. What struck me as odd is that a nursery owner has to specify how much staff are being paid - but there are no specific criteria for minimum qualifications.

In the current state of affairs, the very people who are supposed to be nurturing our children, promoting creativity and strong character, can actually retard their development.

Are leaders born or made? That question has always sparked heated debate, but the best answer I have heard was at TEDxDubai 2011, when early-childhood education advocates Tariq Kashmiri and Samia Kazi stated: "Leaders are moulded in the earliest years of life."

When you think of every day that passes where children are left in the present-day nurseries, where so many carers are obviously unqualified, you have to ask: what exactly is that moulding process?

One suggestion would be to learn from the United States and Australia, which have set up the National Child Care Association and the National Child Care Accreditation Council, respectively. These organisations are mandated with ensuring the regulation and licensing of early childcare institutions. Initiatives like these would go a long way in ensuring a standard of quality on par with global best practices.

Second, another practice common in other countries is to set up nurseries in conjunction with higher-education facilities. When nurseries are joined with a college or university, the larger institution contributes to standards. It also enables education, social science and psychology students to work with, and learn from, preschool students.

This two-way link between a university and a nursery enables students to conduct research on early childhood development, assess areas of improvement and raise the benchmarks at the nursery.

Last, but not least, is the critical element of culture, and how early-childhood education is viewed by parents and the community. It may be a tough pill to swallow, but nurseries would not get away with substandard practices if the community refused to accept mediocrity in such a critical area.

Education starts with the parents, and not just at home. Dropping a child off at a nursery is not enough; parents have to ensure children are being taught in an environment that has their best interests at heart.

Societies investing in the earliest years of childhood education will be the ones leading the charge. As the UAE marches forward, it is critical to keep in mind that the prosperity of our nation will be decided not by natural resources, but by the quality of human resources.

Khalid Al Ameri is a social columnist and blogger based in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri