MAUREEN SAMMS-VAUGHAN (University of the West Indies)

Background and Context

Jamaica, an upper-middle-income country, has had a stable democracy since its independence from Britain in 1962. Its children have not suffered the problems of inequity from conflict situations such as civil war. Emergency and disaster situations are periodic, typically occurring as a result of hurricanes and resulting in short-term displacement. Jamaican children mainly suffer socio-economic inequities that determine the health care, education and social services they receive and their physical and socio-emotional living conditions.

Jamaican children have good access to health care: 98.6% of babies are delivered in hospital by trained staff, 98% of children are registered at birth and 91.1% are immunized against polio.1 There is also good access to early childhood, primary and secondary educational services: 91.5% of children aged 36 to 59 months attend early childhood development (ECD) centres, and net primary and secondary school attendance rates are 98% and 91.5%, respectively. While there is little evidence of inequities in health care delivery, there are equity concerns about the quality of education children receive, particularly at the early childhood level.


Historically, young children (ages 3 to 6) in Jamaica have had high levels of access to education. Community-operated ECD centres were initiated by the church in 1938, when the economic situation forced women into the workplace. These centres proliferated throughout the country informally until the 1950s, when the Ministry of Education (MoE) began conducting supervisory visits. In the 1970s the MoE established guidelines that were not legislated but which allowed the receipt of a small financial subsidy from the government. Government-supported ECD centres, usually situated close to government primary schools and staffed with trained teachers, were established in the 1940s but were much fewer in number. There were also a small number of privately operated centres.

Concern about teacher quality at community ECD centres has been evident since the 1960s. This concern resulted in the establishment of an in-service training programme for existing staff at the national University of the West Indies. In the 1990s two studies identified inadequately trained teachers, inappropriate learning environments and limited resources in community ECD centres.2 These issues, and a strategic review of the early childhood sector, led to the establishment of a single body to coordinate and advance ECD in Jamaica: the Early Childhood Commission (ECC).

The Early Childhood Commission

The ECC, established by law in 2003, is responsible for advising the government on ECD policy; assisting in the preparation, monitoring and evaluation of plans and programmes; coordinating ECD activities; convening stakeholder consultations; analysing resources and making budgetary recommendations; identifying alternatives to state financing; regulating ECD centres; conducting research on ECD; and educating the public about ECD.3

The ECC was informed by international and local research on ECD. Research conducted with Jamaican 6-year-olds through the Profiles Project evaluated the impact of numerous factors on children’s cognitive, behavioural and academic outcomes.4 The project found that a wide range of factors impacted young children’s learning and behaviour, including poverty, parenting, physical health, screening and early intervention, the quality of ECD centres and community supports. Consequently it determined that improving ECD would require a comprehensive approach that addressed all the factors identified. Further the project pointed to poverty or socio-economic inequity as impacting all the outcomes measured. Lower socio-economic status, as defined by fewer material possessions in the home, was directly associated with lower child cognitive and academic scores as well as more challenging behaviours. Lower socio-economic status was also associated with less stable parenting unions, lower parental education, less stimulating home environments, and attendance at community, rather than private (and generally better-equipped) ECD centres, all of which impacted child outcomes.

Consultation with stakeholders around the ECC’s plans identified the following areas, all similar to those identified by the Profiles Project, as requiring specific attention: parenting, primary health services (particularly child development and nutrition monitoring), screening and early identification of children and families at risk, pre-school quality and teacher training. Because of the range of sectors involved in these areas, the ECC decided to focus its efforts on holistic ECD, rather than solely focusing on school-based early childhood education.

The Profiles Project research indicated that only 20.5% of children lived in homes where the occupation of the head of the household was categorized as professional, technical or clerical (and hence higher-income).5 Only 8.2% of children attended private ECD centres, while 91.8% of children, primarily from lower socio-economic groups, attended community or government-operated ECD centres. Currently, of the 2,549 ECD centres serving children ages 3 to 5 years, 1,932 (75.8%) are community-operated, 139 (5.1%) are government-operated and 487 (19.1%) are private.6 Because Jamaica is a small country and the majority of children are from the lower socio-economic group, the ECC opted to address inequity through national programming and planning, rather than identifying ‘target’ groups, which would in fact include the majority of the population.

National Strategic Plan for ECD

In keeping with a comprehensive national approach, the first National Strategic Plan (NSP) for ECD 2008.20137 had five main strategic objectives:

  1. Parenting education and support
  2. Preventive health care
  3. Screening, early identification and referral for at-risk children and families
  4. Safe, learner-centred, well-maintained ECD centres
  5. Effective curriculum delivery by trained early childhood practitioners

The following sections discuss how each of these objectives has been approached through the NSP.


The Profiles Project found that 40% of 6-year-olds had been separated from their fathers and 20% from their mothers.8 Migration for economic benefit was the main reason for separation. Children from higher social classes were more likely to be engaged in reading books while children from lower social classes were more likely to be engaged in household chores. Harsh disciplinary measures were prominent across all social class groups. Only 40% of parents of 6-year-olds reported attending structured parenting programmes. In light of these findings, the NSP aimed to address parenting through the following actions:

  • Development of a National Parenting Policy: Jamaica’s National Parenting Policy was passed by the country’s Parliament in 2012.
  • Development of a national parenting strategy: The strategy, designed to increase access to quality parenting education and support programmes, centred on the establishment of Parents’ Places in communities, using existing community buildings such as schools and community centres.
  • Development of parenting standards: Standards for parenting programmes, with categories for physical environment, design, administration, human resources, materials and monitoring and evaluation, were developed to ensure quality.

By 2013, some 23 ECD parenting programmes (20% of the total) had been assessed against the standards and 19 were certified; by 2015, 35% had been assessed and certified, exceeding the target of 30%.9 Parents’ Places are located in communities where families of lower socio-economic status live, and are community-driven, thus improving access to quality parenting support. In practice, Parents’ Places are most sustainable when they are located within institutions that have existing support staff, such as public schools and ECC-operated ECD Resource Centres, where no additional funding is required.


As access to immunization is already high, the main focus of this objective is improvement in other preventive health areas, through the following actions:

  • Development of standards for well-child clinics: More than 90% of the population lives within 5 miles of one of Jamaica’s 350 health centres. Since access is not an issue, the NSP focused on quality. Standards for well-child care clinics were developed to ensure quality of care for all young children. The standards address physical space, equipment, services offered and human resources. These standards have not yet been implemented.
  • Effective monitoring of child health and development: The Child Health and Development Passport (CHDP), a parent-held record, has been provided to every Jamaican child at birth since 2010. It includes immunization and growth records, health data, development screening questionnaires, educational records and parent education information. This record allows all parents access to information on their children’s growth and development.
  • Strengthening of nutrition support for 0.6-year-olds: The nutrition of children ages 3 to 6 years was prioritized, as the majority of these children attend ECD centres. First, the ECC collaborated in the development of Jamaica’s Infant and Young Child Policy. Second, the ECC coordinated the development of menus, recipes and manuals for lunch provision and provided them to all ECD centres. The menus and recipes were designed to be nutritionally adequate but within the typical cost of a meal supplied to children attending community-based centres, in order to support all children with nutritious meals.


Children affected by biological or environmental factors, including family factors, that place them at risk for impaired health or development benefit from early identification and intervention. However, such children are often excluded from services and suffer inequity. To address this issue, the NSP aimed to develop a family risk screening tool for use at well-child clinics and social service agencies; a child development screening tool for use at well-child clinics; and a school-based evaluation for 4-year-olds to identify those in need of further assessment. By the end of 2013, the ECC had coordinated the development of all three tools, but the tools were awaiting validation. At this stage, implementation of the tools is anticipated.

In order to improve services for children with additional needs, a special associate degree programme for supporting young children with special needs was developed and enrolled its first cohort of 20 students.


The NSP calls for ECD centres that are safe, learner-centred and well-maintained . in other words, quality ECD centres. The establishment and implementation of standards and legislation has been shown to improve the general quality of ECD centres. To this end, the NSP aimed to improve quality through the following actions:

  • Development of standards for ECD centres supported by legislation: The Early Childhood Act for the Regulation and Monitoring of Early Childhood Institutions, passed in 2005, includes requirements for staff qualifications, programme content, behaviour management, health, safety, nutrition, community interactions, administration and finance.10 Because of concerns about the quality of many ECD centres, particularly community centres attended by children from lower socio-economic groups, many ECD centres were not expected to meet full registration requirements immediately. An intermediate Permit to Operate, issued when ECD centres meet health and safety regulations, was therefore included as part of the implementation of this legislation.
  • Engagement and training of ECC Inspectors: Inspectors conduct inspections against standards and provide reports to ECD centre managers.
  • Engagement and training of ECC Development Officers: Officers use inspection reports to assist schools in meeting standards. Community ECD centres have historically received a government stipend, but no additional financial support is provided to assist them in meeting standards.

Figure 1 below demonstrates the gradual improvement seen in the quality of ECD centres in recent years, as measured by the cumulative number of Permits to Operate issued between 2009 and 2013. Community centres have been most responsive to the implementation of health and safety standards, with 57.5% receiving Permits to Operate by 2013, compared with 28.7% of government-operated schools and 35.4% of private centres.11


Trained teachers are recognized to be critical to ECD centre quality. The standards for ECD centres require that each centre serving children over age 3 have at least one ‘qualified teacher’ with a degree from a recognized teacher training college.12 At the start of the NSP, only 15% of ECD centres had at least one trained teacher, with the majority in government centres.13 By 2012, 38% or 1,007 ECD centres had at least one trained teacher, surpassing the NSP target of 20%. Currently 23.5% of community ECD centres have trained teachers compared to 39.1% of private centres and 78.5% of government centres. There is still further work to do to ensure equity in this area.


Lessons Learned

Jamaica used a national approach to address equity in ECD. This approach required the establishment of a national body with legal authority for coordinating ECD and the subsequent establishment of policy and regulatory frameworks. The benefit of a national approach is the sustainability of policy and legal and regulatory frameworks. The challenge of this approach is implementation. While many of the frameworks moved to the implementation phase (e.g. parenting support and regulation of ECD centres and teacher quality), others such as the well-child clinic standards and the screening system did not progress as expected due to limitations in human resource and financial capacities. However, a follow-up strategic plan has been developed to allow for these areas to be addressed.

In developing countries, where large numbers of people live in poverty and socio-economic inequity is a primary concern, national planning and implementation, rather than a targeted approach that encompasses a large proportion of the population, may be a useful strategy to reduce inequity.

  1. STATIN and UNICEF, 2013.
  2. McDonald and Brown, 1993; McDonald, 1995.
  3. Government of Jamaica, 2003.
  4. Samms-Vaughan, 2005.
  5. Ibid.
  6. ECC, 2013.
  7. ECC, 2009.
  8. Samms-Vaughan, 2005.
  9. ECC, 2013.
  10. ECC, 2007.
  11. ECC, 2013.
  12. ECC, 2007.
  13. ECC, 2013.


  • Early Childhood Commission (ECC). 2007. Standards for the Operation, Management and Administration of Early Childhood Institutions. Kingston, Author. (PDF)
  • –2009. A Reader Friendly Guide to the National Strategic Plan for Early Childhood Development in Jamaica 2008.2013. Kingston, Author. (PDF)
  • –2013. Registration Information System [2013 data]. Kingston, Author. (Accessed November 2013.)
  • Government of Jamaica. 2003. Early Childhood Commission Act, 2003. Kingston, Author. (PDF)
  • McDonald, K. 1995. Evaluation Report on the Early Childhood Education Programme in Jamaica. Kingston, Dudley Grant Memorial Trust for the Early Childhood Education Unit, Ministry of Education, Youth and Culture.
  • McDonald, K. and Brown, J. 1993. Evaluation of Day Care Services in Jamaica. Kingston, Caribbean Child Development Centre, University of the West Indies.
  • Samms-Vaughan, M. E. 2005. The Jamaican Pre-School Child: The Status of Early Childhood Development in Jamaica. Kingston, Planning Institute of Jamaica.
  • Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 2013. Jamaica Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2011. Kingston, Authors. (PDF)

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