… claim government interference and lack of support could put them out of business   

Younten Tshedup | Gelephu

Private early childhood care and development (ECCD) centre owners allege that government’s interference could soon put them out of business.

With the four thromdes – Thimphu, Phuentsholing, Samdrupjongkhar and Gelephu coming up with ECCD centres for the ‘urban-poor’ section of the population, private ECCD operators perceive those centres as direct competition for them.

Requesting anonymity, a proprietor said that currently private ECCD centres are labelled expensive and only for the affluent section of the society.

This, he said was not true, adding that most of the private centres had a competitive fee structure and also provided comparatively better quality services.

Even otherwise, he said that many of the privately-owned ECCD centres provided scholarships and subsidies to the less privileged children and low-income families including differently-abled children.

“We already have considerations for the under-privileged at our centres and there is no need for the government to add another ECCD with a name that is derogatory in nature.”

He said that establishing an urban-poor centre would create a stigma among children who attend these centres.

Proprietors also said that it was decided during the former government’s tenure that private centres would look after the urban areas while the government and civil society organisations would take care of rural settlements.

Gelephu Thromde’s education officer, Kunzang, said that following a survey conducted by the education ministry in all the four thromdes, it was found that many children in the urban centres could not avail ECCD services.

“It was mainly because these children came from less privileged families and didn’t get the equal opportunity like the rest,” he said. “The ministry felt the need to establish ECCD centres especially for these urban-poor families and their children.”

He said that the intention was not to compete with the private operators. “In fact, we would ensure that no private ECCDs are affected by this, which is why private owners would be a part of the committee who would help us look for needy children.”

Last year, the ministry approved two such ECCD centres in Gelephu. The Royal Civil Service Commission has also approved six facilitators for the centres.

Kunzang said that there was a notable difference between children who attended ECCD and those who didn’t when they began formal schooling. “This is a clear case of the difference between the haves and have-nots. We want to give every child equal opportunity to education and this was one of the means we thought would work.”

He added that in order not to affect the private ECCDs, enrollment for their centres would start only after the private ECCDs start their sessions. “Even the name would be changed. In no way, we would want to call our centres urban-poor ECCD.”

Lowering the admission age to five 

While private ECCDs would be directly impacted by the government’s recent decision to bring down the admission age to five from six, proprietors said that it is the growth and development of the child that they are more concerned about.

They said that the globally accepted age of admission into a formal education system is six.

A child is not ready for school at the age of five, said a proprietor. “School readiness means much more than knowing alphabets and being able to say and write numbers,” he said. “It means being able to fulfil all the development needs of a child under the six developmental domains including physical wellbeing, motor and skill development needs, social and emotional developmental needs, among others.”

While the government has lowered the age of admission, he said that parents must consider keeping the child in ECCD to help children achieve their developmental milestones in order to prepare them for formal schooling.

Putting children in schools at an early age will add stress to the young minds and it may do more harm than good, said another proprietor. “Besides, the current infrastructure, teaching-learning materials, curriculum and teaching approaches are not designed for children below the age of six.”

Unlike schools, proprietors shared that ECCD focuses on the developmental needs of the child and at least three years is required to make children ready for a formal setting.

“Informal schooling, a single teacher has about 20 to 30 children under them. There is no possibility of giving each child individual time by the teacher, which is crucial for the development of the child.”

Meanwhile, the government after much hassles on the admission age decided to bring down the admission age criteria to ensure that the age aligned with the National Service (Gyalsung) that would be instituted from 2022.

No support to private ECCDs

Proprietors said that working under one umbrella and for the growth of the children, the government should also consider supporting the private ECCD centres equally with the rest.

They alleged that the monitoring of ECCDs in terms of quality of services by the government agencies is conducted only for the private centres today. “The same monitoring is not happening for the government centres in the rural areas and in the work-place ECCDs.”

One of the owners said, “We have no issue with the government being stringent on us but there should also be means to facilitate and help us if there are lapses.”

He said that during the monitoring, common feedback is the lack of trained facilitators in the private centres. However, he said the government does not provide any training to the private centres.

“We have been requesting concerned agencies to help us with the professional development of our teachers but this has not happened,” he said. “Every time there are some training opportunities, due to lack of budget, the private sector is left behind.”

Unlike the rest of the facilitators, the government does not pay the daily allowance to the private participants, he said. “We are even ready to skip the working meals and send our participants with packed lunches if we are allowed to attend the meetings,” he said. “All we want is the training materials and we are ready to pay for that too if the government cannot afford.”

Proprietors also alleged that government education officers attend several ECCD workshops (national and international) but they do not share the information and report with the private centres.

“They have every right to rate our centres low if our services are unsatisfactory. But they should at least facilitate so that we can improve.”