Seychelles Chosen as a UNESCO Category II Centre for Early Childhood Development

Mrs. Shirley Choppy, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Institute of Early Childhood Development (IECD), assumed the role in March 2011 during a Government restructuring, where early childhood development was being emphasised.

Mrs. Choppy’s appointment coincided with Women’s Day on 8th March. She assembled a ‘think tank’ and quickly started discussions on how the Institute of Early Childhood Development would function and its mandate and structure for the effective implementation of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) and in promoting the holistic development of young children aged 0 to 8 below years old.

Political Leadership & Will

“We have been able to achieve so much in such a short period of time due to high level political will and backing from government, thus resulting in UNESCO recognising our efforts. To set Seychelles on a successful path, political leadership was the most important factor.

It was crucial to have political commitment and confidence in a leader who champions ECCE, who was instrumental in defining the policy direction for ECCE in Seychelles through the creation of a High Level ECCE Policy Committee and the formulation of the first ever Seychelles Framework for ECCE. In addition, technical competence and working collaboratively with all concerned to build a strong and resilient ECCE system.

That made UNESCO recognize our efforts with a prestigious accolade received late last year,’’ she said.

Our newspaper got an exclusive interview with Mrs. Choppy last week. It was after the National Sensitization Workshop on Data Management in ECCE, which IECD organized for School Leaders, held at STC Centre. This followed a similar and exemplary project implemented in the Health Sector in 2017-2019 in collaboration with the World Bank.

The People: What was the real turning point in early childhood development in Seychelles and what is its present state?

Mrs. ChoppyMrs. Choppy: Early Childhood Care and Education programmes and services existed even before I became CEO. I used to work as the Director of Early Childhood Education in the Ministry of Education at that time after completing my degrees in Australia in Early Childhood Development & Education. Various entities had an input in what took place, but at this time, aspects of ECCE services were fragmented.

The state of ECCE had always been an issue and the need for a reform process that would address the concerns and inconsistencies – and the need to unify the different agencies and move the country’s ECCE agenda forward. We needed an approach that operated better both within and between sectors to pull together the contributions of different sectors and improve the impact of holistic early development for Seychellois children.

But the real turning point occurred in Moscow in 2010, when the then Vice President, Mr. Danny Faure took a leadership role in the first UNESCO-led World Congress on ECCE. He implored all the 130+ participating countries to adopt a global approach towards ECCE, make ECCE a priority and a reality for all the world’s children. He promised to go back home and lead by example. Indeed he did!

Politics aside, and as attested by many professionals working in this field then and now, it is evident that Seychelles has made great strides and tangible progress in early childhood development. These include; (1) the implementation of the Seychelles Framework on ECCE –  document which articulates common vision and goals for ECCE; (2) the establishment of best practice pillars in ECCE and implementation of various frameworks in building a resilient ECCE system. This relates to policy and legal (development of standards), institutional (creation of IECD among various other structures), programmatic (including monitoring and evaluation) as well as financial (assistance for childcare providers and parents, grants for small projects).

With the introduction of IECD, the situation has improved; the ECCE landscape has changed, and has thus brought ECCE to its present state of affairs. The government’s key enablers that I have just talked about are being well coordinated, implemented and evaluated. To date, there exist a culture of collaborative work, great collegiality and rapport among professionals in the ECCE sectors, among childcare providers and parents.

We are very active on social media, whereby we share information with the local public, and also foreign partners on ECCE. I can say that early childhood development is held in high esteem and we receive support at all levels. There is a heightened awareness of what ECCE is all about and the work that IECD and its partners are doing.

On the other hand, parents and members of the public understand the great importance of early childhood, in nation building and why we are placing a lot of emphasis on improving it.

The People: We are in the difficult period of COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us how early childhood sub-sector has done to date?

Mrs. Choppy: COVID-19 has been a challenge for all of us. Well before the lock-down was announced, parents were already removing their children from Day Care Centres and homes of Childminders. They were concerned for the health and security of their children. So already there were complaints coming from parents due to panic.

After the lock-down, or just before it ended, we had a meeting with the task force of the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development. We were asked to start brainstorming with a view of mapping-out a plan for the re-opening of childminding homes and Day Care Centres.

I was in charge of the sub-committee for Day Care and Childminding services and assisted with three experienced professionals from the health sector. We drafted a recovery plan, revised existing and developed new guidelines for the re-opening of those services which strictly adhered to the guidelines set by the Department of Health.

We met with all registered and non-registered childminders and operators of Day Care Centres to share with them recovery plan and associated guidelines that they have to follow and measures to be implemented before re-opening. The turn-out was excellent and they are being supported through regular site visits.

As we know, the three core principles to be observed are: Heightened Vigilance, Social & Physical Distancing and Hygiene. Our guidelines painstakingly followed these three underlying principles. Initially, it was not an easy task to make children apply them, but with time they started to understand with the support of parents and caregivers. I saw it as an opportunity for us to reinforce on the standards currently in force, but at the same time to place more emphasis on health and hygiene, which are important, regardless of the current global situation.

The People: In your view, how has the government and the Health department dealt with the COVID-19 situation ?

Mrs. Choppy: Since no deaths have been recorded until today and the number of infected people is really low, I believe that they have done a fantastic job. They have adopted a co- ordinated, proactive approach, and set-up effective strategies to handle the task at hand. Whilst sharing a lot of information with members of the public, Dr. Jude Gedeon, Dr. Louange and the dedicated team have done a formidable work. Clearly, the health of our nation is in competent and trusted hands – we should all appreciate and support our professionals.

With regards to early childhood development, all the measures and guidelines which the Department of Health shared with us, have been well received implemented and childcare providers with the support of their parents have developed our own strategies so that children can understand and apply them effectively. The Seychellois population, including young children have been well sensitized and hence played a vital role in our success in handling the pandemic, because there was no lack of information. In fact, it flowed in abundance. It was up to us to make good use of it, which I think we did in our own way. If there is a second wave of this pandemic, I believe we would be very well equipped to deal with it.

The People: In view of this situation, are there new measures put in place in Day Care Centres and Child-minding homes?

Mrs. Choppy: Yes there are! Some Centres, for example, have set up a wash-basin facility out in the compound. Upon arrival, children have to wash their hands before entering their classroom. I believe it is better than using sanitizers. There are parents who are concerned about sanitizers because they contain alcohol and children are prone to put their hands in their mouths from time to time. The Department of Health has also advised that washing hands is much better than using sanitizers.

Children used to just walk into toilets, in view of the current situation and taking into account social distancing guidance, children are now required to queue. The same applies when conducting learning activities in much smaller groups, using more of the outdoor environments as well and staggering lunch times etc.

There are demarcations on the floor and children are trained to stand on those demarcations and take turns. You would be surprised to see how quickly they become aware of those measures and respect them.

The childcare services are not accepting children with symptoms normally associated with COVID-19, these are flu, fever and cough in Day Cares. We are not taking any chances. We are telling and educating parents when their children have those symptoms, they have to bring them to their respective clinic as per the guidance and advice of the Department of Health.

Furthermore, the administration of medicine to children in Day Cares or Child-minding homes is also not allowed because we do not know what sort of disease they have contracted. Infection spreads quickly, especially among children. We are doing our best to assist the Department of Health to prevent the spread of infection among children in childcare settings. So far, except for  a few from the outset, many parents are supportive of the measures in place as they are also a learning opportunity for their children.

Upon arrival in the morning, children are screened and parents are asked a few brief questions on the children’s health; whether they are displaying any symptoms or not, and these are recorded. It is a precautionary measure just in case something happens for contact tracing purposes. But everything until now is going well as we have all realised that it is important for each and everyone of us to play our role to remain safe and healthy.

The People: What facilities have been made available to Day Cares and Child-mining homes in order for them to cope in this difficult times of the Coronavirus pandemic?

Mrs. Choppy: When we went into lockdown in April, the majority of Day Care Centres and Childminding homes were already closed. Some applied for the financial support the government was offering to assist them to pay their staff. Some received it for the months of April and May. But as we heard on television, no Day Care Centre or Child-minding business received help for the month of June since they had already re-opened their businesses by then.

On the other hand, there was the financial assistance the President announced in his State of “The Nation Address” (SONA) for parents who have placed their children either in a Day Care or a Childminding home. Before they were receiving SCR500 in financial aid. Effective as from April 2020, it becomes automatic that all parents who have a child in a registered Day Care or Childminding home receive SCR750 instead – an increase of SCR250. This new and popular government’s initiative aim is to help parents meet the costs of childcare, in particular the childcare fees.

For example, if a parent was supposed to pay SCR1800, the government contributes SCR750 for the child and this amount is paid through ASP to the Childminder’s or Day Care Operator’s account on behalf of the parent. The parent pays the remaining amount, which is SCR1050 directly to the service provider. This assistance started during the COVID-19 pandemic and it is also an additional support for parents.

To date, we have recorded a huge increase in the number of parents accessing this assistance – from around 400 parents prior to the SONA announcement to above 2000 parents as at end of June 2020. I am happy to say that this initiative has proven to be highly successful. As the CEO, I can proudly say that ‘there is no task too small, no challenge too big’ for the small IECD team. We worked hard and flat out during lock-down period and I extend my gratitude and thank my staff for this amazing outcome.

Another Government’s incentive is the monthly payment of Assistant Childminders’ salary, which is equivalent to minimum wage threshold, which has also increased at the beginning of this year. Even during lock-down, when these assistants were not working, financial assistance was still being provided.

The Government gives financial assistance to registered childcares to support them in the effective implementation of national standards to raise the quality of service, ensure that children are well cared, protected and build a strong foundation for later learning.

The People: With COVID-19 new standards introduced were not convenient for operators of Day Cares Centre Operators and Child minders to the point that they threatened to close them. They included additional toilets and other facilities. What can you say about that situation ?

Mrs. Choppy: The new standards apply to Day Care Centres only. They were not introduced during COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, we started work on this collaborative project since last year and around agencies across Government. Work has not completed on this project, but the Day Care regulation is still under the auspices of Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development, as the regulator for Day Care Centres, until its regulation is migrated to IECD in the next year or so.

We at (IECD) are working closely with the Ministry to improve standards and service. We already have some good standards being practiced in our Day Care Centres. However, these are quite dated and require a thorough review following an assessment conducted in 2019 – the development of new standards in consultation with all parties concerned. This is in response to the increasing needs and holistic development of our children and in line with best practices.

Actually, adequate toilets among other equipment such as water heater and water-tank for a certain number of children are mandatory requirements of the standard of public health, and same are included in the IECD National Standards for Childminding Regulations (2016). This is equally not a new thing for registered Day Care Operators as most of them are implementing this norm. It ties in well with improved hygiene as one of the measures that Day Care Centres are implementing during COVID time and with the increased emphasis.

Unfortunately, we cannot compromise on the health, security and protection aspects of our children’s development and equally service providers cannot run away from this mandatory standard, as it is prerequisite for registration of their service. To date, we have no information of any registered Day Care Centre which has closed down.

As is the current practice, when a prospective provider wants to venture in a Day Care Centre Business, he or she must acquaint him/herself with the regulations, standards and expectations for such a service. Usually, we facilitate the process with other agencies and provide them with advices and guidance even before they embark the project. In addition, we offer short training and sensitization sessions in the absence of a formal training programme. We are dealing with small children, therefore we insist on critical measures protect and safeguard the children’s holistic development and wellbeing. We believe in building a strong foundation for our children to succeed in life and nation building.

The People: Seychelles is reputed to have one of the best early childhood development systems in the region and globally. What makes our system so attractive ?

Mrs. Choppy: The UNESCO International Bureau of Education has recognised Seychelles as a Hub for Best Practices in ECCE in 2017. Last year, in the General Conference of that same international organization, our country was also recognized Seychelles for its landmark achievements and received another prestigious accolade as a UNESCO Category II Centre for ECCE. UNESCO is pleasantly impressed with the rapid transformation in ECCE, in particular the SDG’s targets and work in the 0-3 years, that has taken place during the short span of time. The Association for the Development of Africa (ADEA), World Bank Group echoed some similar sentiments about the political and technical leadership in ECCE. The United Nations, in its concluding observations on the combined 5th & 6th periodic reports of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (2018), Seychelles was acclaimed by the leadership shown at regional level, recognition by IBE and formulation of the National Action Plan for ECCE coordinated by IECD in collaboration with all Sectors – education, social, health and community development. These are some but a few examples of international reviews received thus far. Our system is so attractive because of the following:

1. Establish an Enabling Environment – we have generally strong legal frameworks which promote the health, education, protection and well-being of our young children and pregnant women. We have strong institutions and structures, and also a multi-sectoral and coordinated early childhood development plan for the country with clear priorities and to address gaps.

2. Effective Implementation of Policy Actions and Programmes – there is wide scope and coverage of early childhood development services and relevant programmes. Access to health and education services is generally high and equitable, although more data are needed to assess this fully. Financial mechanisms and support in this sector has increased steadily to help implement standards and improve the quality of service delivery.

3. Quality Assurance and Monitoring & Evaluation – Standards of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) are being used to measure quality, service provision and delivery through research initiatives. Facilities are being provided in the communities for parents to access and children to develop further. A comprehensive programme for 0-3 including the regulation of childminding services, is regarded as a good practice as it is an underdeveloped area in many countries.

4. Improved Coordination and Collaboration, Governance and Communications – Governance mechanisms at the highest political through a high level ECCE Policy Committee, IECD as the institutional anchor, and sectoral levels, and frameworks are in place and implemented in coordinated manner. All sectors embrace the collaborative spirit to make things happen in the best interest of young children and their families. All parties have access to information about ECCE, and the population is aware of the developments in ECCE through the social media channels.

The People: To conclude, just feel free to make any comments on early childhood development.

Mrs. Choppy: Since its creation, the Institute as a coordinating, advisory and regulating entity has been relentless in its efforts to bring everyone on board, although it was not been easy, for the successful implementation of early childhood development agenda.

We work together with our visionary political and technical leaders at the helm of the ECCE Sectors, in close collaboration with the Chairpersons and Members of Sectoral Technical Teams, IECD Staff (both past and present), Childcare Providers, Parents among other partners and stakeholders in order to reach to this stage. I extend a note of gratitude and appreciation to all these persons and count on their unwavering support, and renewed commitment.

What we have achieved so far will provide Seychelles with great impetus to further improve its programmes, refine service provision as well as to build its human resource capacity to move towards and sustain excellence in ECCE. The future of Seychellois children and ECCE in general certainly look bright and very promising!