By Carolina Freire
Classes begin in Panama in a few of months, but Jaime’s mother isn’t sure if she’ll be enrolling him in preschool. What if he doesn’t like it or he gets sick a lot? Wouldn’t it be better for him to stay at the neighbor’s house?
Several studies, including those conducted by James Heckman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, have proven that access to preschool education for children between the ages of three and five has a positive impact on different dimensiones of their development in the short term. In the long run, early childhood education improves learning and increases educational achievement while it reduces the dropout rate and the likelihood of repeating a grade. Those who have received education and comprehensive care in early childhood enjoy better physical and mental health in their adult life. They also have a greater ability to generate income and are less dependent on state subsidy programs. In adolescence, the effect is equally positive; evidence shows a decline in risky behaviors such as teen pregnancy and tobacco and drug use.
More than 200 million children under five are not reaching their potential during this crucial stage of life. Panama is no exception. Only 2.9% of two- and three-year-olds attend a childcare center. Although preschool education for children three to five years of age is free and compulsory, four in 10 children in this age group do not attend school.
In addition to coverage gaps, early childhood education in Panama faces quality challenges. Thirty-five percent of the four- and five-year-olds who attend official preschools do so in an informal setting. In these preschools, the teachers are community workers or mothers. Even in a formal atmosphere, 29% of preschool teachers have no advanced degree and only 15% hold a college degree.
Poor preschool quality and coverage are evident in the high first-grade repetition rate, the highest in the school system. Failures in first grade are directly related to the lack of a preschool experience. Children start school with gaps in their development, and the educational system is not capable of helping the disadvantaged catch up to their more advanced peers.
Investing in Panama’s human capital involves paying particular attention to early childhood education. The agenda is broad and identifies several priorities, including: (a) increasing the coverage of preschool services while adhering to standards of quality, (b) improving the quality of preschool teachers through more training and a gradual accreditation process, and (c) investing in adequate infrastructure and equipment.
According to a study published by UNICEF, a total investment of $76 million is required in Panama. Over a five-year period, that breaks down to $15 million annually.
Ensuring that all Panamanian boys and girls attend preschool and have quality learning experiences that condition them for success in school and in life is a goal within our reach. It is the right and duty of the Panamanian people.
Carolina Freire is Founder of Ponteenalgo.com, Panama’s first online volunteer centre. She also established Voluntarios de Panamá, an NGO committed to mobilizing and connecting volunteers to national causes and organizations. Freire is a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, think tanks and non-profit organizations in issues related to social policy.