Authors: Diane Coury, Diana Ortiz
Site of publication: Learning Portal
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: August 21st, 2021
The government of the Gambia has taken measures to improve access to early childhood education (ECE), leading to an increase in the gross enrolment rate from 36.4% in 2013 to 54.5% in 2019. Yet many children, especially those from the poorest households, still do not benefit from ECE services. Furthermore, ensuring the quality of the services is a major concern. According to a forthcoming cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) of Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres conducted by IIEP-UNESCO, only 4% of pre-schoolers in the Gambia are ready for primary school. The study also found that among factors that could help improve early learning outcomes, good process quality, such as positive teacher-child interactions and child-centered and play-based pedagogical approaches, was decisive.
What the current state of ECE process quality in the Gambia?
Traditional analysis of the quality of ECE services tends to focus on indicators of structural quality, that refer to variables such as group characteristics (group size, adult-child ratios), caregiver characteristics (teachers’ level of education, training, experience, mentoring) and characteristics of the physical environment, including materials, health, and safety. However, while this information is relevant, it is not sufficient.
The government of the Gambia has taken measures to improve access to early childhood education (ECE), leading to an increase in the gross enrolment rate from 36.4% in 2013 to 54.5% in 2019. Yet many children, especially those from the poorest households, still do not benefit from ECE services
Many ECE experts argue that it is essential to have a deep understanding of the local context in which children evolve and to know what is happening daily in the classrooms. This is commonly known in the literature as process quality; it includes the nature of the interactions between teachers and children and the pedagogical approaches used in early childhood settings. However, one cannot analyze process quality without taking into account structural variables. Indeed, structural features “are considered to be important preconditions for process quality” (Slot, 2018), and as such work in pairs.
High-quality classroom interactions are limited
Children’s engagement in classroom activities remains a challenge and individualized interaction is limited in most preschools. Continued engagement (i.e. paying attention, looking at the teacher, focusing on the lesson, and participating in activities) is particularly low, with less than half of children reported as engaged during the classroom observation. Child engagement was also hindered by large class sizes (40 per class on average) limiting available classroom space and opportunities for group work. While best practices call for various forms of grouping throughout lessons (Lima and Barros Martins, 2019) – for example, the whole class, small groups, or pairs – 87% of cases used only one type of grouping – generally plenary sessions – with limited individual instruction practiced occasionally in 30% of the cases. On a positive note, teachers did encourage equal participation of boys and girls in almost 75% of cases, although more could be done to promote gender and diversity.As far as disciplinary practices are concerned, a large proportion of teachers (48%) did not take any disciplinary action when needed or used negative verbal interactions, such as shouting, humiliating, threats or insults to manage children’s behaviour. Negative physical discipline was less common, although close to 31% of teachers used some form of negative physical discipline during the class observation. In addition, barely a third of ECD teachers are tracking children’s learning development (e.g. early literacy, early numeracy, fine motor skills, executive functions, etc.) on a regular basis, and children have their own portfolio in only 13% of classrooms. Without proper tracking, it is difficult for teachers to provide timely and appropriate interventions to keep children’s learning achievement on track for primary school readiness.
Teacher initial qualification was a significant driver
Teacher initial qualification was found to be the most discriminating factor, while having an ECD certificate or having participated in an ECD in-service training had no effect on teaching approaches or the quality of interactions, raising concerns about their quality and relevance. These results remain quite counter-intuitive, as other evidence has shown that teachers who receive dedicated early learning education and training are more likely to implement a play-centered approach and have high-quality interactions with children. One explanation could be that the ECD certificate was based on the old ECD curriculum (updated in 2019), which did not fully cover new developments related to child-centered and play-based approaches. On the other hand, the positive and strong correlation displayed between the process quality variable and initial education certification could be related to the fact that these certificates provide core and transversal skills that ECD teachers can use and apply in their daily practice. It is interesting to note that the possession of a certificate /diploma in education also has a direct effect on children’s early learning outcomes (IIEP-UNESCO, forthcoming), implying that ECD teachers’ initial education background affects children’s learning both directly and indirectly via improved teaching approaches.
Specialized ECD training is too short and not fully targeting teachers’ needs to have a significant effect
Regarding specialized ECD in-service training, only 43% of ECD teachers benefited from such training, usually for a maximum of four days. While probably too short to effectively impart teachers with the required knowledge and skills, the training topics might also not fully respond to teachers’ needs. Most training focused on curriculum-related aspects (64%), followed by ECD teaching-learning methods (59%). However, teachers also expressed the need to be trained in classroom management (54%), teaching young children (46%), assessing children’s development (43%), and “record-keeping” (34%). Many teachers deal with multi-grade classrooms and/or have students with special needs which, without adequate training, can make classroom management challenging and potentially detrimental.
The availability and use of pedagogical materials also matter
The process quality score is higher for those teachers who have appropriate pedagogical material available in the classroom. However, pedagogical materials are generally in short supply in most ECD centres in the Gambia, with art supplies, imaginative toys, blocks and art material particularly lacking. A shortage of basic furniture is also observed; only 75% of ECD classrooms are able to provide all children with a seat and access to a writing surface. Even when available, pedagogical materials are not always used, which could indicate a lack of teachers’ skills on how to use the materials appropriately.
Headteacher support was not a determinant factor
Contrary to much of the literature which points to support from school leaders as helping teachers create a more engaging environment we found no significant relationship between head-teacher support and ECD teachers’ process quality scores. The relationship between headteacher support and positive teaching practice is in some cases negative (especially when the headteacher supports classroom management and children’s play and learning). This result questions the quality of ECD centre head teachers’ training and points to room for improvement in their daily support practices.
- Strengthen the existing ECD teacher training offer ECD teaching methods are very different from primary teaching methods. They require play and child-centered approaches for optimal learning. Given that many ECD teachers in the Gambia are primary teachers, it will be important for them to receive specific ECD education and training. The ECD certificate should be reviewed in line with the 2019 ECD curriculum to ensure that it provides teachers with the competencies needed to support more child-centered and play-based approaches, better-quality interactions, and effective classrooms management practices. Both pre-and in-service training can also be strengthened by including critical topics such as teaching young children, using a child portfolio, applying pedagogical materials correctly, using all forms of groupings during lessons, and managing large classes, multi-grade classrooms, and classrooms with children with special needs. Since ECD teachers holding an education certificate or diploma do display better ECD teaching practices, the MoBSE could also assess the feasibility of building on this initial ECD certification as a specialized certification stream.
- Provide relevant training to ECD centre headteachers ECD centre headteachers would benefit from specialized training on how to support, coach, and mentor ECD staff in their pedagogical practices to foster children’s learning, development, and well-being; issues that are not currently addressed during their inception training course. This could take the form of an upgraded inception training associated with regular ongoing training to enable headteachers to strengthen their skills and keep abreast of the latest developments.
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