Mr Palm's speech during the opening session of the “Albania preschool standards implementation workshop” organized by UNICEF and Ministry of Education and Sports from 24 to 27 September 2013
For me, this is the first official government event of the season, and I am glad that it is about pre-school education, and the need for standards. The importance of early childhood education is one of my favorite topics and I could go on talking for a long time about it.
But first of all, let me congratulate government for its commitment to raise education expenditure to 5% of the GDP. This will bring Albania’s spending on education close to countries with the best education systems. The challenge is – and we will closely follow developments – to put the money where it creates the greatest impact and greatest difference.
This is early childhood learning and pre-school education. I am talking about the years of a child between 3 and 6 years.
There is a current plan by government to achieve universal pre-primary class enrolment – which is the last year before a child enters school. Of course, this is good and should be pursued. But I am adamant here: Early learning is not just about polishing some knowledge about the alphabet during the year before the child enters school. This would miss the important point that a child starts learning long time before. And that during the early years the brain of a child forms. Whether or not a child will be a good learner or a poor student is also determined in the early years.
So my first big message is – don’t concentrate on the pre-primary class only, but start during early years. The education opportunities should start at the age of three.
To the costs of it: According to the last census, Albania’s population is shrinking. A few years ago, 45,000 children were born each year, and 45,000 children would enter primary school. Now we are closer to 30,000 births per year. That means there are a lot of classroom empty, a lot of teachers underemployed. These resources can be channeled into ECD.
My next major point: early childhood opportunities are particularly important for the most vulnerable children, from poor families, from minorities. We normally expect that families can provide a lot of early learning opportunities, they buy toys, there is someone to play with the child, the parents can choose the right activities. In poor families, parents often can’t do this. Here, participating in high quality kindergartens can level the playing field. This has been subject of scientific research – by the Nobel Prize winning economist Mr. Heckman.
The graphs shows that children from vulnerable families benefit most from ECD services – and that indeed societies benefit most if education investments are directed towards vulnerable these children in their early – pre-school – years.
Again, financing can be resolved. First there will be the promised increase in education budget (the current share of education budget for ECD is only 6%, and there is lots of room to increase that). But we can also think of many financing schemes, including through measures of solidarity (as a principle of the new government programme) where communes can subsidize the costs of attendance by the very poor.
We may need the Ministry of Finance involvement, to create a separate budget line for ECD – which doesn’t exist at the moment – so that budget and expenditure for ECD can actually be tracked.
Finally: Why are the standards important. Standards will ensure equity; otherwise wealthy communes have good kindergardens and poor communes have poor kindergardens. High quality ECD is beneficial, low quality child care is harmful.
This workshop and research comes at the right time. It will help government to put its promise into reality, for the benefit of children, especially from the marginalized segments, and for the benefit of society as a whole.