THE KNIGHT. Dr Noor Jaffer is the Chairman - Institute for Rural Education and Development (IREAD), a Canadian charity organisation that has created itself a niche in building Early Childhood Development Centres in rural areas. He spoke to Godfrey Lugaaju
What is Early Childhood Development?
It is a holistic approach to childhood development which was developed by the government of Uganda in 2013 and launched in 2016. Through it, the child can have a good start in life since it goes beyond educating the child to ensuring they get good nutrition, sanitation and socialisation skill development.
What in your opinion is the relevance of ECD?
It equips children with school reading skills which will help them stay in school and perform better. It gives them a good foundation by building their self-esteem and developing their listening skill, social interaction and challenging their brains to be better thinkers and doers.
What is the focus of ECD programmes?
We are aiming at building bridges by developing rural communities that we empower to create and sustain effective and accessible opportunities for optimal early childhood development.
How different is ECD from nursery school education?
ECD centres do not teach but develop the minds of the children. Unlike nursery school, children in ECD learn by touching and feeling objects. We do not make them sit in a classroom environment but rather try creating one that is not limited to allow them move around and explore their surroundings freely. Nursery school education is more of studying than nurturing, it is actually confining to the child.
What are some of the benefits of ECD programmes?
Research has demonstrated that children who participate in Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes tend to be more successful later in school. They are also more competent socially and emotionally and show better verbal, intellectual and physical development.
Do you also cater for children with special needs?
Since we fall under the ministry of gender, labour and social development, we incorporate them in our programmes. We make provisions for them in the way we build our structures although we have not yet had any enrolled in any of the centres.
How do ECD programmes involve parents?
We involve parents in seminars and teachings. The policy gives parents the mandate to manage the centres and IREAD only helps in the establishment and once we are done building the centre, it then belongs to the community and parents take an upper hand in the ownership.
We often tell parents that if they want their children to grow and do better, they have to get involved in the centre.
So, is ECD an alternative to nursery school education?
Yes because by the time the child leaves the ECD, they are actually more ready for primary education than those that went in for nursery education due to the different trainings they go through which are not in nursery. A child who has gone through ECD is liable to being more susceptible in society compared to those in nursery who just sit back on their desks and only dwell on class work neglecting brain development.
How do you decide on where to establish the centres?
We have a four criteria policy we follow in selecting a community. First, the community has to donate the land and it has to be community-owned. Secondly, we do a demographic study to establish that there are children in that area who have no ECD centre. Thirdly, we get into a memorandum of understanding with the locals where they agree to provide free unskilled labour and the locally available building materials at no cost. Lastly, the community volunteers under the Central Management Committee (CMS) agree to take over and manage the center after construction.
Tell me some of the centers you have established in Uganda
We have so far established six and they are named after their donors. We did one in Kitatya, Kayunga District, Hajee in Deku, Koboko, Mary’s Shining Stars in Padembo, Koboko, Roel in Wani, Arua District, Shamji in Gomba, Arua District and Laila and Sami in Sironko.
How have your centres here performed?
We have so far established six centres in different districts, most of them were opened in 2015. By then, the enrollment was very low probably due to the low sensitisation on what ECD is. Currently, the numbers have increased from 300 to 956 children with each centre having 170 children on average.
What are some of the challenges in implementing the ECD policy?
Sensitisation and getting the village members ready to embrace the whole aspect of ECD is not an easy job. Parents too have still failed to see value in ECD plus the government, which has not allocated any funding for the policy in regard to sustainability and maintenance.
From dentist to educationistt
Dr. Jaffer was the recipient of the YMCA Canada Peace Medal in 2001 for his humanitarian work. He was born in London UK and grew up in Uganda. He obtained his Dentistry degree from the University of London in 1976 before moving to Canada. After a brief teaching career at the University of Alberta, he settled in Calgary where he currently assists his son manage several dental clinics. When his son joined the practice in 2002, it freed Dr Jaffer to pursue his philanthropic passions.