Government aware of the value of early childhood programmes
--Health Minister tells Caribbean meeting
Guyana Chronicle
July 25, 2002

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MINISTER of Health Dr. Leslie Ramsammy has said that the Government is cognisant of the fact that children must be exposed to quality early childhood programmes, since these have all the key ingredients to ensure that children develop the necessary and appropriate qualities for their survival.

Dr. Ramsammy made these remarks Monday evening at the official opening of the Fourth Caribbean Conference on Early Childhood Development at the Convention Centre of the Ocean View International Hotel, Liliendaal, East Coast Demerara.

He emphasised that age-appropriate knowledge, emotional intelligence, social interactive skills, self confidence and mastery of language are necessary qualities that must be instilled in children.

Ramsammy noted that the conference, which coincides with Guyana's Chairmanship of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), is also an opportunity to highlight another area of progress and demonstrate ways in which the community could deal seriously with issues of vital importance to all.

He said the wide range of groups represented at the conference is evidence of the support of CARICOM's Early Childhood Education Care and Development programme.

Organisations involved in the conference included the Caribbean Association of Early Childhood Education Care and Development, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), CARICOM, the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) and the Caribbean Support Initiative (CSI).

Ramsammy said the conference reaffirmed Guyana's commitment to make early childhood education available and accessible to all children from age three. He said the Government is committed to improving the quality of nursery education and providing facilities and trained staff for its delivery.

The programme entails working in partnership with civil society, religious groups and encouraging them to support the early childhood education programme, he explained. This will be done by sensitising parents on its importance and providing the means and infrastructure to facilitate a smooth transition from nursery school to primary school, the Minister added.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith-Thompson, President of the region's early childhood education body, said at a news conference that the organisation is embracing not only education, but also the holistic development of the child from birth to eight years of age.

She said the agencies involved are in support of two main objectives -- to build and strengthen national associations, and to implement the Caribbean Plan of Action, which originated in 1997 at the Early Childhood Development conference held in Barbados.

That plan was endorsed by CARICOM Ministers of Education, and was updated at the Third Caribbean Conference on Early Childhood Development held in Ocho Rios, Jamaica in 2000, she said.

Smith-Thompson said it was an enormous task, but because of the benefits that could accrue, the regional body is holding on to it and extending its life. She said improvements in the delivery of early childhood programmes throughout the Caribbean are some of the benefits derived from the project.

The scheme covers components on training in the whole social life of the child. They include parenting education, learning environment and legislation. Smith-Thompson emphasised that legislation is very important because without policies there is very little that could be achieved in ensuring that early childhood programmes can be upgraded.

She said that the support of government agencies is critical in implementing the programmes.

Smith-Thompson said one of the steps taken by the regional body is the involvement of practitioners, and this embraces a wide spectrum of persons including parents, caregivers, technocrats, ministers of governments, and funding agencies.

UNICEF Director of the Americas Mr. Per Engebak told the conference that the commitments made by Caribbean countries on a National Plan of Action on Early Childhood Development constitute a clear manifestation that Caribbean countries have understood the importance of investing in children.

Engebak said it is particularly important to note that there is probably not another single investment in the social area, which is more significant and long lasting than investment in early childhood development.

He said Caribbean countries have come a long way on early childhood development, pointing out that a few years ago, the emphasis was not on early childhood development, but early childhood education.

"It is therefore important for UNICEF to be a partner in this endeavour," the official pointed out. He said UNICEF is committed to being a full force behind the endeavour and sees it as the single most important priority in the Caribbean.

Engebak said the conference is of prime importance to UNICEF because it is part of a partnership within the United Nations system. He said he is particularly pleased to know that PAHO is playing an important role as well. (JAIME HALL)