Early childhood education is now widely accepted by countries around the world as being extremely beneficial to national development. This acceptance is based on the idea that a child’s development can be modified and enhanced by the quality of their early environments and experiences. Some studies show that early childhood cognitive and socio-emotional development can strongly predict later school enrollment and life success. Failing to tap into this potential can result in as much as 20% decline in income over a lifetime which can have negative implications for national development (Yoshikawa et al., 2007). Belize has made modest progress both in expanding access and improving the quality of its education system over the past ten years. Nonetheless, Belize still faces major and persistent challenges in access to and quality of education services that it is constantly trying to address.
At the pre-primary level, one of the important goals established by the Ministry of Education (MOE) is to provide early childhood education to 50 percent of preschool aged children. According to UNICEF in Belize, wide disparities persist in the access to early childhood education. School attendance in Belize however continues to be among the lowest in the region. Belize’s preschool gross attendance rate of 47% in 2011, is among the lowest in the Latina America and Caribbean (LAC) region, considerably below the gross regional average of 71 percent. By comparison, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago report preschool coverage of more than 80 percent. The lowest level of government spending per student was at the preschool level (BZ$671), which is less than one - half of per student expenditures for primary schools. The majority of children in pre-school are enrolled mainly in the Belize District and urban areas (IDB, 2013). Currently Cayo, (31%), Toledo (30%) and Orange Walk (26%) Districts experience the lowest enrollments.
At the primary school level, the net enrollment rate (NER) increased by only 1% from the period 2001 to 2010 from 94% to 95% respectively even though primary school education is mandatory in Belize. The remaining 5% are not enrolled in school primarily due to the costs associated with schooling and availability of school facilities especially at the early childhood level. Even though primary education is officially “free” in Belize, some families cannot afford associated costs such as uniforms and textbooks effectively dissuading children from attending attend school.
According to a study done by the IDB (2013) on Belize’s education system, education coverage is increasing only among the wealthiest students. At the primary level, students from families in the highest income quintile were the only group that experienced a slight increase in attendance rates (2 percentage points) over the last 10 years. On the other hand, the enrollment gap between the wealthiest and poorest groups of primary school students increased from 2 percentage points in 1999 to 7 percentage points in 2009. The urban-rural gap in primary schools has also remained largely constant at 2 percentage points over the last decade. In 2009, 93% of primary-aged children in urban areas attended school, compared with 91% in rural areas. Preschool education has yet to reach the lowest income quintiles.
Preschool education has yet to reach the lowest income quintiles.
Another critical aspect of Belize’s education system is the quality of instruction. Belize’s teaching force at the primary school level remains largely unqualified. Forty percent of teachers are untrained and the MOE has been addressing this issue head on but the results of recent policies of ensure teachers have the requisite training will not come into fruition in the short term. Schools in the southern districts of Stann Creek and Toledo have the lowest proportion of trained teachers (approximately 33% in each district) and report the lowest student performance on the PSE exam, with approximately 64% of the students obtaining unsatisfactory grades.
In order to address the various challenges in early childhood education, the MOE has adopted a number of strategies. At the pre-primary level, the government intends to increase the number of schools and hire additional teachers to maintain the current student/teacher ratio. Additionally, the MOE intends to open preschool classes in selected primary schools across the country and establish school feeding programs in poorer areas. Also in strengthening school governance as per the Education Sector Strategy, it is working with the IDB to build a quality assurance system and teacher quality by establishing national teacher education and accountability standards. The MOE has also rolled out a Quality School Initiative (QSI) which aims to strengthen school leadership. The Ministry of Education’s Education Sector Strategy ran from 2011 to 2016 and the Ministry of Education has yet to update its strategy or carry out an evaluation of achievements and impacts of the expired strategy.
Nonetheless, the steady focus on early childhood by Belize is slowing beginning to show positive results at least in terms of access. According to UNICEF Belize, preschool attendance showed a modest increase up to 55% in attendance in 2015. Further success though is contingent upon the Ministry of Education remaining consistent in pushing through reforms and policies to improve not just access but also the quality of early childhood education in Belize.