Mr Palm's address on the launching of the new "Albania Reads" project for preschool children on 2 July 2010
The Minister of Education,
Today, we celebrate two occasions: The first, the end of the hugely popular "Albania Reads" project. The second, the beginning of a new reading project for preschool children throughout Albania.
The first initiative provided 150 high quality books to more than 1200 compulsory schools, with bookcases and a manual on library management. Because of the unexpected donor support we added another 200 libraries, which should be in the schools in for the new school year in September. This will make more than 1400 schools. Examples of the books are here. They include titles from classical literature, such as Dickens or Jules Verne and contemporary ones such as Harry Potter and some of the best Albanian authors including Kadare.
I make it a habit, when I am travelling, to drop into schools and see the Albania Reads library. It is always there, and teachers (some more than others) are always proud to show it and how it is used. This made the project so popular among our donors, which include IKEA, Vodafone, AMC, Raiffeisen Bank, and Sheraton Hotels who also kindly facilitated today’s event. Large contributions also came from private sources collected by UNICEF in Switzerland and the UK. All partners believe that reading books is important for young children, and they can see concrete results as the libraries got distributed and used.
Why do we think this makes a difference? We know that a whole generation of children was growing up without books or encouragement to read. Parents could not offer the opportunity to their children - because of lack of money or outdated public or school libraries. Whenever we asked “what would you like UNICEF to assist you with", most school head masters said: “books and computers". We believe that computers and the internet are important, but they cannot replace reading a book and the stimulation it provides for children.
There were huge logistic problems. We partnered with the Youth Albania Professional Services, a social business to distribute the libraries. There were schools that could only be reached by donkey, but which also got a library. Also teachers were trained, there were authors' competitions, book fairs and awards where children selected the best books. Some public libraries, such as in Kukes, or schools that were hit by the floods earlier this year got books. A girl from one of the flooded schools said: Today a hundred new stories and ideas came into our school.
We are extremely encouraged to see that the Ministry of Education, and some local authorities have allocated additional budgets for school libraries. This will continue to be a success story.
Let me come to the future. UNICEF will support the Ministry of Education to make sure that young children between the age of 3 and 6 will get their first exposure to high quality books and reading. Over there you see examples of a typical set up and books appropriate to that age. Why this?
There is a wealth of global research that proves that early language development plays a large role in shaping later outcomes of children. A little difference in stimulation at an early age - before school - results in huge differences later in life, in terms of learning achievements, economic productivity and social integration. A recent World Bank study showed that just one year of universal pre-school can translate into an 8 percent increase in the average income of young adults, a 14 percent increase in women's employment, and a 5 percent reduction in poverty.
Social expenditure for children is not a burden on the government budget. It is an incredibly effective investment in Albania's future, with the highest possible returns. Early childhood opportunities help to avoid that poverty is passed on from grandparents to parents and to the children. Early advantages cumulate; so do early disadvantages. Directing additional funds toward the early years, before the start of compulsory schooling, is a sound investment in the productivity and safety of society.
The project aims to reach first preschool children from poor areas, ethnic minorities, and other disadvantaged groups. Too often, we start with those who are reasonably well off, and then the money runs out before we reach the poor. This time we want to do it the other way round.
We expect that:
We look forward to assist the Ministry of Education, and the many pre-schools and kindergartens that want to make sure that young children will have the right opportunities.