In January 2018, Costa Rica introduced two years of mandatory preschool for children: both three- and four-year olds are now obliged to attend pre-primary education in order to be admitted to the first grade of school.
Costa Rica is the latest of several countries in the region to take this approach. But even though countless studies have demonstrated the impact of pre-primary education, with a substantial boost in academic achievement when children reach school, more than half of all three- to six- year olds worldwide still have no access to it.
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So could mandatory preschool help to close this gap, and what impact will it have on the futures of Costa Rica’s children?
How does it work?
Ahead of the policy change, the Costa Rican government informed parents that they would be made responsible for taking their child to preschool. They are only excluded from their obligation if they can prove there is no pre-primary school in their vicinity.
“Shifting to compulsory pre-primary education could make a real difference”
To make sure this doesn’t happen, the Minister of Education asked all regional directors to map out the children who don’t have access to pre-primary school, information which is being used to allocate extra teachers around the country.
In the remote town of Puerto Viejo, for example, there was a number of young children without preschool access. The local Cecudi (municipal childcare centre) decided to pay a teacher from a nearby school an extra fee to teach them.
The achievement gap
The new approach means preschool education can stretch further. “Making it compulsory is a way to help some of the people that will not be reached to access the system,” said Anna Cristina D’Addio, a senior policy analyst at the Global Education Monitoring Report UNESCO. In particular, the policy is targeted at children from poor backgrounds. In 2011, for example, preschool attendance rates were 8% amongst the poorest children compared to 39% amongst the richest.
Overall, since 2000, the rate of four year olds in preschool has increased by more than nine times in Costa Rica, but access varies significantly: the attendance rate of the country’s poorest preschoolers is more than 30 percentage points lower than the richest.
At home, meanwhile, 68% of three- to five-year-olds get a “stimulating” learning environment, which is a strong predictor of later school performance. This means adults engaging with children in activities to promote learning, such as telling stories, singing, or drawing.
For the 32% that are not in a stimulating home environment, though, D’Addio said, “shifting to compulsory pre-primary education could make a real difference.” And alongside preschool, policymakers should look at ways to help out in the home, she said, such as educating parents and home visiting.
Making preschool worthwhile
Merely accessing preschool will not necessarily have an impact, though: the quality of preschool has a large bearing on child development. For example, one study in Costa Rica found only one-quarter of participating children in early learning programs were assessed to be on track in early literacy and maths.
As a result, said D’Addio, during implementation it’s vital to create standards for preschool quality and monitor them.
“We cannot pretend that low-income countries will progress at the same speed”
In Peru, for example, the government’s Semáforo Escuela (School Traffic Light) adopted their primary school regulation model by sending 338 trained monitors unannounced to visit public preschools in 2016. They used tablets to collect information on things like student and teacher attendance, availability of learning materials and sanitation. These results were posted online, updated on a monthly basis and sent to regional education authorities to inform policymakers.
In South America and the Caribbean, including Peru, 37% of countries now have at least two years of compulsory preschool, compared to 9% in Europe and North America.
And for Costa Rica, compulsory education is an important step in elevating the reputation of early childhood education and increasing access.
With limited infrastructure and varied quality, though, it may take some time for results to emerge. “It might be difficult for countries with different amounts of resources to progress at the same speed, but it is important to engage in such a transformation.” said D’Addio. — Jack Graham. Additional reporting by Alia Shahzad.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Sean Norton)