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Private preschools: Why it takes a village to avert disaster

Without earnest self-reflection, it will be difficult to set in motion a roadmap to avoid a replay of senseless tragedies such as the recent drowning of a four-year-old child.

Jerrica Fatima Ann
4 minute read

As a career early childhood educator, reading the tragic news of four-year-old Thanes Nair drowning at an Ipoh preschool both saddened me and sent shivers down my spine. Losing a child is an incomparable trauma for any parent, even more painful when it’s a toddler. My heart aches for his grieving mother. 

The shivers I felt when recalling the near calamity that occurred only a few weeks earlier at my workplace, where two students about Thanes’ age almost drowned in the swimming pool. That day, four teachers were supervising "water play": two inside with the children, and two keeping watch. Yet, when the children slipped and sank underwater without warning, their caretakers wasted precious seconds screaming in panic.

Luckily, sanity prevailed, and someone pulled them out in the nick of time before tragedy struck. But luck, by definition, is a fickle friend, especially when teachers have no training as lifeguards and don’t receive regular CPR training. Given enough time, a tragedy like Thanes’ is inevitable at any big-name private preschool around the country. 

But before we mount our high horses and furiously shake our fingers at the alleged negligence of preschool teachers, or breathe fire at the failure of school management, let me assure you this is a futile exercise. Doing so will change nothing; it won’t stave off future deaths because it always takes two – or in this case, the proverbial village – to tango.

Thanes’ untimely death is symptomatic of the systemic rot in early childhood education (ECE) in Malaysia, specifically in the private sector. Its origins are in the subtle, daily wrongs that have, over time, become business as usual.

Make no mistake, we are all responsible for Thanes’ drowning: the schools, the parents, the teachers, the system. Without earnest self-reflection, we cannot set in motion a roadmap to avoid a replay of this senseless tragedy.

Now, allow me to introduce the two principal actors in this long-running farce and how their attitudes keep perpetuating the slide in early childhood education standards:

First, private preschools. They take the lion’s share of the blame. To maximise their profits, they routinely hire unqualified individuals – those without early childhood education or special needs education degrees or diplomas – to teach. I ask you; can we really expect children to experience meaningful learning under these circumstances? Can we truly trust such individuals to help unlock a child’s latent potential? To keep them safe? 

Case in point: the preschool under investigation now claims Thanes was autistic and his mother was remiss in her duty to inform them accordingly. So, if he was "normal", so to speak, they would readily accept the blame for his drowning? Here’s a hard fact: a trained special needs teacher has the tools to identify an autistic child in a brief interaction. How many of them do our supposedly "inclusive" preschools hire? Why doesn’t the government mandate such hiring?

It pains me to report that the term ECE practitioner has become a tired joke. Preschools have cast us as glorified nannies and not deliverers of crucial developmental learning.

Imagine yourself a teacher who spent tens of thousands of ringgit on your diploma and degree, choosing this profession because you believed it was your calling in life. How would you feel if your employer treated you the same as an SPM graduate? If they paid you the same rate as fast-food workers or manual labourers, even when they charged the parents exorbitant fees? How eager would you be to give it your best day after day, year after year?

Most preschool teachers are way overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. Many of us never make a living wage and often the best and brightest quit the industry altogether.

Parents are the second guilty party. Somehow, there appears to be a proportional relationship between the affluence of parents and their utter disregard for the details of their children’s education. They’re easily smitten by the cosmetic grandeur of preschool facilities with scant regard for the quality of teaching or tangible learning outcomes.

What impresses them is flash over substance: swimming pools, smart boards, state-of-the-art curricula following some fill-in-the-blank Western nation, much of which is marketing fodder and implemented in name only. Hard as it may be to believe, never in my years working at preschools has a parent approached me or asked school management for proof of my qualification to teach or that of another class or subject teacher. 
Perhaps parents are unaware their indifference diminishes the return on their investment; perhaps they are clueless about the value of formative years’ education. Ultimately, it is the child’s loss – hopefully only in learning and not their very lives.

If we’re to treat ECE as a vital step on the education ladder, a total revamp of the system is imperative. First, preschools must hire qualified teachers, and anyone who doesn’t meet the minimum benchmark must undergo rigorous training to prove themselves worthy. 

Next, preschool teachers deserve compensation on par with their qualifications: those who have spent years at university deserve wages reflective of their training. 

Also, all staff must receive regular training in first aid and CPR, at least every quarter, if not sooner. This is doubly important because preschools experience a higher-than-average turnover.

Finally, parents must look past the preschool window dressing and concern themselves with the nuts and bolts of their children’s education. What use are first-rate facilities if their child can’t hold a pencil properly after two years?

I hope that Thanes’ death will not be in vain: that his mother will receive compassion and closure; that his passing will bring to light the many slight injustices that together conspired to take his life. 

Jerrica Fatima Ann is an early childhood educator based in Ipoh. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.