Early childhood care and development for all in Sri Lanka

Palanisamy Krishnakumar

Approximately 60% of children aged 3-5 years are involved in early childhood care and development (ECCD) in Sri Lanka. The government plans to increase this to 80% by the end of 2009. However, the inclusion of young children from marginalised groups has not yet received much attention. In this article, Krishnakumar outlines Save the Children's work to include disabled and other excluded children, using tools such as the 'Index for Inclusion in Early Years'.

Background
In Sri Lanka early childhood usually means from birth to age 5, although there is on-going debate about including the early primary school years, up to age 8. This would ensure continuity of experience and a smoother transition into formal schooling. ECCD is mainly provided by private and non-governmental institutions with only a few pre-schools directly supported by the government.

There is poor co-ordination between the various ECCD programmes and services (which have different models and standards); limited community participation; and too few trained ECCD teachers. Nevertheless, these issues are being discussed and gradually resolved, with technical and financial support from non-governmental actors - a process which is making central government more responsible and accountable.

Exclusion
In Sri Lanka, large numbers of children with disabilities, poor and marginalised children, and those belonging to low caste and minority ethnic groups are excluded from play, learning and development services. In 2005, a Save the Children study found that children with disabilities make up a significant proportion of those excluded. Their exclusion is due to social stigma, a lack of early screening systems, and the perceived inability of ECCD teachers to accommodate children with disabilities in their programmes.

Supporting teachers to work with children with disabilities
Save the Children started a programme of community mobilisation and awareness to help stakeholders understand the importance of ECCD from a rights perspective. We stressed that all children, regardless of their abilities or status, should enjoy their right to survival, growth and development, participation, and to be heard.

However, we found there was a lack of user-friendly materials and relevant inclusion training available. We therefore developed a culturally appropriate teacher training package with modules, session plans and a training-of-trainers programme. The package was created through a consultative and participatory process with communities, government and nongovernment ECCD actors.

More than 5,000 ECCD teachers have been trained to identify, enrol and include children with disabilities, seeing difference as a resource for learning and development rather than a problem. So far, over 300 children with disabilities have been given a better start in life. Our training package is recognised by the government and government officers have also been trained.

Using the Index for Inclusion
However, other excluded children also need attention. The barriers to their inclusion need to be identified, as do ways of overcoming these obstacles. We also need to map the resources that can be used to promote inclusion in ECCD with a focus on community participation and leadership.

In 2008, Save the Children started to localise the 'Index for Inclusion in Early Years' 1 (published by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education) to fit into the Sri Lankan ECCD context. The process started with translating the Index into local languages and with a series of consultations. The material was piloted in selected ECCD centres representing both Tamil and Sinhalese communities in six districts, and the lessons learned were documented. The final output will be a Sri Lankan version of the Index that can help ECCD teachers and communities understand and practise inclusive approaches in ECCD centres, benefiting all Sri Lankan children.

Krishnakumar is an ECCD Adviser with Save the Children in Sri Lanka. Contact:
58 A, Horton Place,
Colombo 7,
Sri Lanka

Email:

1 See EENET's website to download the Index in various languages.


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