Mr Palm's speech during the National Conference on the "Preparatory classes, a new reality for improving the school quality" held in Tirana on 23 November 2012
Childhood is the age of opportunity. Childhood is the time when children grow the most quickly. Most abilities that people have as adults are learned during the early years. The ability to think, the ability to sympathize, how we solve our conflicts, social skills, whether we will be a good student or a bad students – all this is learned during the first 5 or 6 years of life.
Later, we mainly add knowledge.
So, if the early years of a child are the golden and most important opportunity, we must ask ourselves – what do we do with this opportunity? Do we use it to the utmost of our personal and society’s possibilities?
The focus of this conference is on the assessment of the successes and challenges of the pre-primary classes or what we call preparatory year. We want to jumpstart schooling. As an individual parent, we want to give our children a running start when they get into the first class of primary school. As a country, we ant to get the PISA up. We want Albania and to get better, more competitive, especially in the forthcoming EU market.
But pre-school, including kindergartens, also play another role. They level the playing field among Albania's children, so everyone can have an equal chance. So we should ask ourselves two questions:
1. Do pre-primary classes help overall academic performance. The answer is a clear yes. Later today we will hear the lessons how pre-primary classes should the be organized and financed to become really good.
2. The other questions is how pre-primary classes can help those who are left behind, to catch up with the smart kids from moderately well-to do parents. So when they enter school, everyone starts from similar conditions.
I want you to visualize two families with small children:
In one family, the parents are well educated. The father works at a bank, the mother as a civil servant. They have a small car, and during the holidays they go to the beach. They buy a lot of toys for their children. At dinner, the child sits in a high chair and the parents talk to her. Parents meet with other parents, and talk about their children. Their kids play with other kids. At bedtime, one parent reads to their child from a book. The child will grow well and become a good student.
Now think of a family who is poor. Think of a family living in the remote mountains, or perhaps a family from the Roma community. The parents have to work hard and their mind is occupied with the daily survival. They do physical work, and are tired when they come home. There is no money for educational toys. The parents didn’t have much education themselves. There is no discussion of what would be best for the children. There are no books in the home.
Who do you think is in more urgent need of a pre-school? Clearly, the chances in life can dramatically increase for the child from the poor family, if it could attend a good kindergarten with properly trained staff.
There is scientific evidence, that investments in early learning opportunities for children bring the biggest returns, if they are directed to the most needy children. If there is any additional money to be spent in the entire education system, it is best spent for the youngest children, and especially the young children from disadvantaged communities.
In practice it means that investments in kindergarten or pre-schools or preparatory classes need to be made at the periphery, trying to catch the children of the poor. I know that public pressure for pre-schools is highest from the well-to-do families – because they know its benefits, they have their network, they know whom to call in regional directorate, and they know what’s going on. As officials, it is our obligation to ensure that pre-school benefits reach all – and if the resources are not enough they got first to children who are most at risk of being left behind.
There many measure that could be considered. Such as giving priority places to children from single parent families (where the father is away), or to families who receive social assistance. Let them jump the queue, because their children are at greatest risk. Or reserve a certain percentage of pre-school or kindergarten places for the socially weak, and subsidize their fees.
I am really pleased about this conference and wish you fruitful deliberations.