Can M’Sia’s Goal of Enroling Every Child in Preschool Be Achieved?

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Under the 12th Malaysia Plan, every child between the ages of four and six should be in preschools by 2025 but unless something is done soon, we’ll have to shift the goalpost – yet again.

The initial target set for 2020 was delayed by five years and if steps are not taken to address the lack of access to quality preschool education in both rural and urban areas, the 2025 target will remain a pipe dream, says a World Bank report on Malaysia’s preschool education sector.

“Despite undertaking various preschool education reforms and initiatives, issues of access and quality remain and continue to grow.

“The Malaysia Education Blueprint (2013-2025) set a target to achieve universal preschool enrollment by 2020, and Malaysia, along with many other developing countries, has yet to achieve this,” read the “Shaping First Steps: A Comprehensive Review of Preschool Education in Malaysia” report released in May.

The problem

The report’s preschool survey and stakeholder interview findings reveal a range of issues, such as:

> a lack of preschool seat availability in certain areas;

> low awareness among parents on the benefits of sending their children to preschools;

> affordability of preschool expenses, low teacher quality, and concerns over the overlapping roles between the multiple ministries and agencies that oversee early childhood care and education (ECCE) in Malaysia.

Overall preschool enrolment leaped from 67% in 2009 to 85.5% in 2016 and have remained relatively stagnant until 2020, when it dropped to 83.5% due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report attributes the drop to many parents fearing sending their children to preschool for health and safety reasons and/or finding the fees unaffordable due to the drop in their household incomes.

The enrolment in private preschools has outpaced public preschools over the past decade.

In 2010, 54% of preschool students were enrolled in public preschools, while 46% were enrolled in the private sector.

This trend reversed since 2014, and by 2020 the share of enrolled students in the public sector was only 48%, while the share of enrolment in the private sector was 52%.

“However, there was a drop in enrolment in the private sector in 2020 for the first time during the decade, accompanied by a small increase in public preschool enrolment, possibly indicating a fall in demand for fee-paying private preschools during the pandemic, alongside a small rise in demand for free or heavily subsidised public preschools,” the report read.

As for the number of schools, to date, there are more than 16,700 government-established preschools in Malaysia, and more than 9,100 registered privately established ones.

The private sector has emerged as a significant provider of preschool education, operating 36% of registered preschools in 2021.

It also accounts for 52% of all enrolled students ages four plus and five plus, while the public sector accounts for 48%.

However in 2021, the number of private preschools fell slightly from the previous year, as a result of closures due to the pandemic.

“The rise in private preschools can be largely attributed to the government’s efforts since 2013 to encourage the opening of private preschools and for parents to send their children to private preschools.”

Preschools matter

A Unesco report in 2020 said the first five years of life are the fastest period of human growth and development, as 90% of a person’s brain development occurs by the age of five.

World Bank Senior Education Specialist Dr Aija Maarit Rinkinen said attending preschool is a must as it prepares children with skills needed for the future.

“These include soft skills such as communication, working with others, cooperation, basic language skills and the foundational academic skills children need when they go to school.

“All skills that the labour market asks for,” she said, adding that the process needs to start from the early ages as they need time to be developed.

“Investing in early childhood education leads to a multiplier effect, affecting not only children and their parents, but also the society and the economy of the country,” read the report.

Solution in sight

To get more, and ultimately all, children into preschool, the report suggests reintroducing fee assistance and support for other preschool-related costs, to enable parents to enroll their children in affordable private preschools.

For the private operators, launching grants or additional funding assistance for those who open preschools in high-need areas would be helpful.

This has proven effective in the past when in 2013, initiatives such as fee assistance, grants, and tax incentives encouraged more parents to send their children to preschool.

In addition to the above recommendations, the government needs to identify high-need areas by undertaking a survey of who and where the children are, followed by a detailed mapping of preschool seat demand and supply to more effectively close gaps in enrollment rates.

It also suggested being flexible and allowing local communities to adjust the curriculum, teaching method and learning spaces to suit its needs, as well as using interim measures to give unenrolled children an education.

For example, creating fast track programmes and the deployment of mobile preschool classrooms.

Easing ECCE licensing and renewal processes and setting up more registration and renewal centres in rural areas is also needed.

What’s being done

The Education Ministry and the Community Development Department (Kemas) are the main providers of public preschool education, standing at 24% and 33% respectively.

The National Integration and Unity Department (JPNIN) is another government body providing 7% of preschools in Malaysia.

The government has also increased its funding for preschools.

Its expenditure on preschool education operations has also more than tripled, from RM247mil in 2010 to RM837mil in 2020.

The ministry has started two-session preschools which has helped more children gain a preschool education, said Education Ministry Curriculum Development Division deputy director Sarina Salim during the launch of the report on May 30.

Besides that, the government has started building more preschools, all located within national school grounds, she said.

“We are also working hand-in-hand with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) especially in Sabah and Sarawak, to give learning accessibility to children there,” she said, adding that they are constantly engaging and collaborating with NGOs and the private sector to help widen access to preschool education.

While these efforts are commendable, Rinkinen said most of the spaces available in government preschools cater to the B40, and even then, there are not enough spaces.

Although there are more than 1,900 registered private preschools (and many unregistered ones) to help meet the needs of the rakyat, Rinkinen said not all are in easily accessible locations.

Parents, she added, prefer preschools near their homes or on the way to work.

For the rural and indigenous communities, she said, many preschools are in locations that require the children to walk long distances or need boats to attend them.

Then there are special needs children who would require special infrastructure and facilities so they can learn, she added.

“The affordability of school fees and other preschool costs are also a challenge,” said Rinkinen.