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Exempt Poor Families From Pre-School Fees
Posted: Wednesday, October 6, 2004

by George Alleyne,

Even as Government moves to establish guidelines for Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) centres in an effort to upgrade the quality of services offered it should initiate a programme under which it would exempt the heads of very poor families from paying fees for their children attending these centres. A means test will have to be devised which will take into account family income and the number of dependents. A cut off point having been determined Government should take the decision to pay the fees of pre-schoolers attending ECCEs registered with the Ministry of Education, whether these centres are State or privately owned.

While parents who could afford to pay for their children at these centres should be required to do so, no child should be denied the right to attend a pre-school (I am dealing with the pre-school aspect of ECCEs) because his father or mother is unable, as a result of low income, to pay the pre-school fees. It is vital to establish a cut off point as not everyone who resides in a low income area lives below the poverty line. Indeed, there are scores of persons who live in areas such as John John, Waterloo, Guayaguayare and Embacadere who can not be considered as below the poverty line. On the other hand there are persons residing in Chaguanas, St James, Belmont and San Fernando's Mon Repos who fall in this category. Government, or rather the Ministry of Education, should see any payment by it of pre-school fees for poor children and the provision of nutritional, psychological and social services, features of late United States President Lyndon B Johnson's well known Head Start Programme, as both an investment in them and in the country's future.

It was the designing of the Head Start Programme and its funding by the US Government which gave hundreds of thousands of children from deprived families in the United States the needed chance to be achievers. A Trinidad and Tobago "Head Start" should not be viewed simply on the basis of those who stumbled and fell, but of those who having stumbled righted themselves and became achievers. We can not condemn people to lives of nothingness because they were born poor. But even as we argue this we must also insist on standards for those who are paid to teach them, and for the providing of an uplift for their parents, many of whom were educationally deprived. Minister of Education, Mrs Hazel Manning, has spoken of Government's aim to build hundreds of pre-schools. As many of these as possible should be multi-purpose centres which would cater in the morning and early afternoon to the pre-schoolers, and in the late afternoon, early evening would be centres for adult classes both to teach the all too many in our society basic skills and how to read and write.

There are literally tens of thousands of children of illegal immigrants from northern islands and Guyana who can neither read nor write, never having had a formal education because their parents feared that had they sought to register them in school, their immigration status would have been uncovered and they would have been deported. If we can attract those educationally deprived young and not so young men and women into the multi-purpose centres in the evening to learn how to read and write and with it to explore the world of books and knowledge they would be able to position themselves to make meaningful contributions to the development of Trinidad and Tobago. I switch gears. Mrs Manning has stated that it was the aim of the Ministry of Education to "mainstream children with handicaps," and has insisted that while the Ministry has been putting in needed staff and facilities for special children, that it was up to the Principals and teachers to accommodate these children.

The alternative is having special schools for them, a situation apart from being difficult to implement would have denied, in all probability, by the lumping together of special children, depending of course on their handicap, the right of other potential Veera Bhajans and Mikkel Trestrails to emerge and be outstanding. The United Kingdom Education Act of 1976, although itself wishy washy, advanced that special children (it referred to them as handicapped children) should be sent to regular schools rather than be segregated save in exceptional cases. Two years later, "Special Educational Needs," the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, better known as the Warnock Report, (after its Chairman) HMSO, 1978, insisted that except in the case of children with "severe, complex or long term disabilities" they should be accommodated in normal schools. The difference being that while the Act merely offered that this should be done, the Warnock Report made a firm recommendation.

In addition, the following year, the Report "Meeting Special Educational Needs," HMSO would state: "At present children are categorised accordng to their disabilities and not according to their educational needs. But the Committee recommended that statutory categorisation of handicapped children should be abolished. The basis for this decision about the type of educational provision required should not be a single label, but rather a detailed description of the special need in question." The UK Government has since acted.

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