Taiwan government's efforts pay off in pre-schools

Earlier, TODAY had examined the pre-school systems in Hong Kong, Shanghai and South Korea. For the fourth instalment of a five-part series, we look at Taiwan’s pre-school sector, which has its strengths in teacher-training and the overall quality of education.

The Taiwan government started intervening in early childhood learning more than two decades ago. One of its first moves was to set up pre-schools within public primary schools. Other efforts include providing funding for inclusive education and tapping academics to act as mentors for pre-school teachers.

However, the successful efforts to improve public pre-schools have resulted in a non-level playing field between public and private pre-schools, with the former enjoying greater government support and higher regard among parents, though the latter group makes up the vast majority of the sector. This has created a set of challenges which policymakers are now trying to address.

At Xinsheng Primary School, five-year-olds run around the sprawling football field alongside older children. When the bell rings for recess, primary school kids also drop by their former pre-school to visit their teachers.

One striking feature of the Taiwan pre-school sector is the practice of siting public pre-schools within the premises of primary schools.

Xinsheng Primary Pre-School Principal Chou Ching Ling is a staunch supporter of such a policy. Apart from easing the transition process from pre-school to Primary 1, Ms Chou noted that it facilitates frequent discussions between pre-school and primary school teachers. This enables the Pri 1 curriculum to be aligned to pre-school learning, while Pri 1 teachers can also better understand their students’ strengths and weaknesses, she added.

Parents also play a part in the smooth transition. Pre-schools in Taiwan are required to set up parent associations and, as part of the professional accreditation process, collaboration with families is also taken into consideration.

By getting parents involved, educators said it builds up a strong culture of trust between schools and families. This, in turn, allows teachers to do their work with minimal interference.

“There is less anxiety about preparing for (primary) education,” said National Taiwan University Pre-School Principal Tai-Man. “(Parents) will also not demand for more academic learning at such an early age when they know and trust the teachers.”

It is common for Taiwanese parents to read stories to classes in their children’s pre-school or participate in parenting workshops. At National Taiwan University Pre-School, for instance, the pre-school plans volunteering activities for parents, including helping out during lessons or at mealtimes. Parents also take part in talks. Even at the private Sunshine Pre-School, which caters to mostly dual-income families, its Associate Director Sun Ping-Yun said there are regular activities for families to know the school and teachers better.

To date, there are 6,611 pre-schools in Taiwan. About 30 per cent are public pre-schools, while the rest are run by the private sector. While most public pre-schools are housed within primary and secondary schools, some are allocated their own sites. For instance, Taipei has two stand-alone experimental public pre-schools, which are used to catalyse latest teaching strategies.

Given the growing demand for public pre-school spaces, the Taiwan Ministry of Education plans to increase the proportion of public pre-schools in the sector to 40 per cent by working with non-profit pre-schools.

The demand has increased over the years as the Taiwan authorities introduced measures such as a quality accreditation framework and curriculum guidelines for a play-based education. To stimulate diversity, officials also pushed for each government pre-school to have a niche area. For example, Xinsheng Primary Pre-School and Dajia Primary Pre-School have developed niches of theme-based learning and cycling, respectively.

In Taipei, eight out of 10 public pre-school teachers hold master’s degrees and public pre-schools are able to retain their teaching talents because their teachers enjoy the same benefits and job security as elementary school teachers.

Former Taipei education chief Chen Han Qiang, who is currently the Chairman of Early Childhood Foundation in Taiwan, pointed out that the public pre-schools “set a quality benchmark for the entire sector to follow”.

Due to limited places in public pre-schools, five-year-olds are given priority admission over younger children, before they go on to primary school. Spaces are allocated based on factors including proximity to home and financial status or special needs conditions.

Despite the high demand for public pre-school places, Ms Hsu Li-Chuan, who is Deputy Leader of the Taiwan Ministry of Education’s Division of Junior High, Elementary School and Pre-School Education, said the government would not nationalise the sector. “With private players, there is diversity and innovation, helping both public and private pre-schools to improve,” she said.

STRONG TEACHER TRAINING

Taiwan early childhood experts credit the strong teacher training programme as one of the main factors in the quality of the pre-school sector.

Before being hired as pre-school teachers, undergraduates undergo four years of university education. Apart from early development courses, there will be opportunities to participate in internships. Towards the end of their programme, a graded six-month practicum is also mandatory, after which they have to sit an exam to qualify for a teachers’ licence. Upon graduation, they have to go through a further selection process — including written examinations, interviews and teaching demonstrations — in order to land a job in a public pre-school.

Teacher training institutes are also kept up-to-date with the government’s curriculum guidelines and they produce teachers who are familiar with implementing research-proven play strategies in pre-schools.

“Learning through play actually requires a lot more effort and expertise,” said Dr Lin Pei-jung, head of Early Childhood Education at the University of Taipei. “To implement a play-based curriculum successfully, teachers have to be highly trained.”

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Pre-school educators are required to undergo at least 18 hours of professional upgrading every year and they can choose courses ranging from special needs education to using information technology in teaching.

The fact that the government does not set strict assessment guidelines for pre-schools allows them to create a more nurturing environment. Taipei Nan-hai Experimental Pre-School, for example, encourages teachers to self-evaluate and organises sessions for staff to provide suggestions on their colleagues’ teaching methods. “Everyone learns from one another and it is not about pitting one teacher against another,” said its Principal Chang Wei-Tsu.

However, the private pre-school sector is facing the pressing challenge of retaining its educators.

According to official figures, higher learning institutes produce 900 new teachers each year, meeting industry needs. However, academics estimate that private pre-schools have an annual attrition rate of about 40 per cent, due to the unequal benefits for private and public pre-school teachers.

In Taipei, for instance, public pre-school teachers earn average monthly wages of NT$41,000 (S$1,730), while their private counterparts get about NT$33,000 (S$1,390) each month.

The former group is also accorded privileges that civil servants enjoy, including job protection under strict union laws. Each year, the bulk of graduating pre-school teachers are hired by private pre-schools.

This year, public pre-schools hired only about 6 per cent out of more than 1,600 teaching applicants. The recent integration of kindergarten and childcare centres has also resulted in two different groups of educators in the industry — teachers and “educarers”.

Educarers, who are mostly diploma or associate degree holders, used to be employed as childcare teachers and are paid less than teachers. Under government guidelines, each class catering to three- to five-year-olds must have a teacher-student ratio of 1:15. In a graduating class of five-year-olds, there must also be at least one qualified teacher.

Public pre-schools, which have greater financial resources, hire mostly teachers to teach in the classroom and delegate administrative tasks to educarers. In comparison, private pre-schools also employ educarers to teach.

Observers took issue with the situation, which they felt was affecting the quality of private pre-schools.

For educarers, the consolidation of the industry has left them feeling second-rate. Taipei educarer association Director Chen Hui Qing said: “It is causing anxiety ... as we are deemed inferior as compared to teachers.”

The Taiwan Ministry of Education is planning to offer bridging courses for educarers to be trained as teachers.

LEARNING THROUGH DIVERSITY

All the pre-schools which TODAY visited adopt a system where children of different ages can learn from one another. Apart from putting children across different age groups in the same class, pre-schools also plan programmes for the pupils to interact and play together.

At Taiwan University Pre-School, for instance, four-year-olds are grouped together with three-year-olds in the same class. “The younger ones will try to emulate the older children’s actions to complete a task, while older children try to teach the younger ones,” its Principal, Ms Tai, said.

Ms Liao Yi-Chun, a parent whose child goes to the pre-school, welcomed the approach. “Children may not have many siblings at home but in school, they learn to become a big brother or sister to someone else,” she said.

Taiwan pre-schools also encourage inclusive education. Public pre-schools give priority admission to children with mild to mid-levels of special needs. They are also given the necessary resources to cater to these children.

For example, the public Taipei Nan-hai Experimental Pre-School is built with ramps to help children using wheelchairs to move around. It also runs therapy classes for special needs children.

At private pre-schools, teachers receive a subsidy of NT$5,000 every year to attend early intervention courses. Private pre-schools are also given NT$10,000 for every special needs teacher which they employ.

The government also has a team of special needs specialists who visit pre-schools and advise their teachers. Workshops are also organised for parents and teachers to learn more about special needs.

At the non-profit San Min Pre-School, for instance, children who have been diagnosed with special needs upon admission will have a customised learning plan. These kids will be in the same class as their mainstream peers but receive additional attention from teachers. Special needs specialists visit the pre-school regularly to track the children’s development and work with parents and teachers to revise teaching strategies and plan suitable activities.

For children who are found to have special needs conditions after enrolment, teachers and specialists will similarly work together to refer them to diagnosis services and therapy sessions.

San Min Principal Zhou Dai Pei noted the challenges of having special needs children in mainstream classrooms. Besides having to convince their families to let the children undergo therapy, the pre-school has to allay other parents’ concerns via meetings and public education workshops, she said. Teachers, who already work long hours, also have to spend extra time designing customised lesson plans and attending courses on early intervention, she added.

Still, pre-school educators whom TODAY spoke to believe that the additional efforts are worthwhile. Taiwan University Pre-School teacher Chang Hsiu Lin, who has special needs children in her class, said: “An inclusive environment gives every child a chance. Kids also learn about respecting and accepting differences.”

A parent, Mr Liu Chia-Hao, belatedly found out that a classmate of one of his daughters has special needs. He has since witnessed his child helping the classmate, like a big sister. “When she starts primary school and beyond, she will be able to adapt and work with others,” he said.

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