Early childhood is the most rapid period of development in life. There is no other time that can have such a significant impact on intellectual skills, language development, literacy, social/emotional capacity and resilience. Helping children develop this foundation early on can change the trajectory of their life path.”Jane Krill Thompson, Early Education Specialist
Children who don’t go to grădiniță are lost from the start.” Târnava teacher, Sibiu County
Only about a third of severely disadvantaged children in Romania receive any formal education before the age of six, while human development experts agree that the single most important period for brain development is between birth and age 5.
By increasing daily attendance in public early education programs, FCG helps impoverished children increase their chances of completing the 10 years of schooling mandated by Romanian law. This in turn, increases their job opportunities and the odds of their becoming active tax-paying citizens.
Money spent on interventions at a later stage in life has very little impact if children’s minds have not been stimulated from an early age. Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics James Heckman has demonstrated that early education programs have a 4 to 10 times higher return on investment than any other intervention. Read more, here.
Early childhood education raises lifetime wages, and thereby tax revenues, and reduces the likelihood that children will drop out of school, be unemployed, get involved in crime and become a burden on society in every way. These outcomes more than make up for the costs of early childhood education. In fact, according to the World Bank, Romania would gain one billion euros per year in productivity and tax revenues if its poorest citizens were better educated.
The international data is undeniable: children whose minds are challenged in early childhood do much better when they enter school, and this makes an enormous difference for their later success in life. From birth to age five, a child’s brain undergoes its most rapid growth and development. This period sets the stage for all later learning and adult functioning.
Studies have shown that well-educated parents talk to their children more often, use a wider and more varied vocabulary, and speak more positively to their children than parents with low education levels. And of course, the better educated are more likely to read to their children from an early age. So it is hardly surprising that children who are exposed to early language and books become better students in school – and more employable in adulthood.
All across Romania, children from the poorest quartile of the population enter school without the most basic literacy skills (such as the ability to identify ten letters of the alphabet). Their homes are devoid of books and their parents are not even aware of the importance of talking to their children, much less reading to them. Unlike the print- rich homes of better educated families, their homes may have no printed matter at all. Thus, these children enter the school system far behind their peers and are unable to ever catch up. “School After School” programs are too little, too late to close the gap, or more accurately, the gulf that has already separated poor rural children from their middle- class urban peers by the time they enter clasa pregătitoare.
This skills gulf is not just a problem for the poor – it creates a social and economic burden that must be borne by the educated productive members of society. Doing the right thing for one’s own children is essential, but if we do not do the same for the children of the uneducated and socially marginalized, our legacy to our own children will be a society with built-in costs and handicaps that stifle Romania’s overall competitiveness.
Why Food Coupons?
Food coupons, conditional on children’s attendance in preschool, have proven to be a highly effective and efficient tool to stimulate destitute, functionally illiterate parents (with an average of four years of schooling) to bring their young children to grădiniță every day.
All programs that advocate for early education recommend proactively enrolling children at risk, communicating with parents, and helping alleviate ‘hidden costs’ by providing clothes and school materials. But extreme poverty results in people having a very different set of daily priorities than working families have. Food coupons address the very first priority for these families: feeding everyone today!
Information and mediation are important but it is the conditional incentives that move significant numbers of poor parents to act on a daily basis – and dramatically increase poor children’s attendance.To receive the coupons, children must attend preschool every day or have an officially excused absence. While €11 per month in any form is an inducement to destitute jobless parents, the payment method – food coupons (tichete sociale) – is its own positive factor. The vouchers, accepted virtually everywhere, are better than cash because they are:
- More acceptable to other members of the community as a form of social aid;
- Easier to manage distribution and track;
- Less fungible (purchase of cigarettes and alcohol are excluded);
- Directly targeted to children’s nutritional needs.
In Romania, hot meals at school are out of the question in most rural areas because the kindergartens have neither the facilities for food preparation nor access to licensed suppliers.
It’s so simple. I’m surprised we didn’t think of this before.”
Dullo Szilard, Araci School Principal
Once poor parents are integrated in the educational system, they DO bring rheir children to grădiniță — even if they are not eligible for the food coupons any more.” Simona Cristea, Budila social worker and program coordinator.
Are food coupons enough? ABSOLUTELY NOT
Find more about complementary measures that were included in the pilot FCG program here.
Excerpts from an interview on Radio Romania International
Ana-Maria Palcu: Do you think that €11 in food coupons is a sufficient incentive for parents to regularly send their children to kindergarten?
Leslie Hawke: I don’t think it’s really about the money. It’s about the fact that the government, for the first time, seems to want their children to come to school – starting with kindergarten. The food coupons are largely symbolic.
Ana-Maria Palcu: Given that most parents living below the poverty line are illiterate, isn’t a change of mentalities needed with more emphasis on information & persuasion?
Leslie Hawke: A change of mentality on the part of the authorities is already happening. And that is what is most important – and will drive the change of mentality in parents! Of course, there’s always going to be a contrary parent in the village, but the vast majority of illiterate parents want the same things we want for our children – they want for them to reach their potential in life and to be happy. And no one knows better than an illiterate adult that illiteracy is a major life handicap!
When these parents discover that their child is highly capable of learning to read and write – and that the teachers are kind and encouraging to him – that’s all the information they need! Of course, as the children get older, other issues come into play – cultural and financial issues – but it is EASY to persuade an illiterate parent to send their kid to grădiniță! What the 50 lei does, if they are desperately poor, is remind them to get up in the morning and make the effort to take their kid to school.