Armenia: No Small Matter
By Onnik Krikorian/UNICEF Armenia
Marine Soukhudyan, UNICEF Education Officer, knows this only too well.
"When children aren't in possession of the basics for entering school, it is more difficult for them to adjust to this new environment and they are less communicative with their teachers and peers," she says. "They have already been deprived of the opportunity to open their minds to explore, compare and learn. That is one reason why there are only two to five good pupils on average in every class in schools in Armenia and why many children are unable to fully grasp the curriculum presented."
In order to address this problem, the Armenian Government now intends to make enrolment in pre-school classes mandatory for children at the age of five. Because most kindergartens are rigid and inflexible, the plan is to make them more child and parent-friendly with hours and services designed to cater to the needs of parents and their children. This should encourage higher figures for enrolment and attendance. UNICEF will also support efforts to specifically target parents and improve the level of home-based education in communities without any kindergarten or pre-school facility at all.
In Vanadzor, the two mothers certainly appear relaxed in this setting and totally at ease. At first glance this might be considered as normal a kindergarten as any to be found in the West but appearances can be deceptive. Although the kindergarten in Armenia’s third largest city can accommodate 120 children, only 75 of 107 currently enrolled attend on a regular basis. Winter is the most difficult time when the cost of heating taxes an already overstretched budget.
Nevertheless, attendance is higher than at most kindergartens in Armenia. In this residential district of Vanadzor, for example, only 30 per cent of eligible children attend kindergarten or pre-school classes. Receiving just $4,000 per year from the community budget to cover the cost of salaries and utilities in addition to the $5 per month fee that most parents have to pay, it’s amazing that this kindergarten is operating at all.
Yet, despite adverse economic conditions, the kindergarten can be considered a success in a country where only two out of ten children are enrolled in any form of pre-school educational facility. What makes it different, however, is the approach taken by the staff. Rather than complain about a lack of resources, new methodologies introduced by UNICEF are quickly taken on board by a staff that is eager to learn and adapt.
“Our approach is not to wait for money,” explains Armaida Abovyan, the kindergarten’s Director. “Instead of waiting for toys to be purchased or donated, for example, we use our own imagination and creative skills to produce games and activities.”
Outside Abovyan’s office, traditional Armenian dolls made by the staff with materials supplied by parents decorate the walls. Downstairs, a class of six-year-olds plays checkers with the tops collected from dozens of soft drink bottles. As sad as it might sound, the tops are actually quite colorful and appealing. To one side of the room sit cardboard traffic lights that will later be used to teach the children about road-safety.
Abovyan is also keen to point out the trees and shrubs outside that were planted and nurtured by the children. Although there has been no instruction – and certainly no resources made available – to raise environmental awareness amongst these pre-school children, it is of vital importance that they do. Vanadzor was devastated by the 1988 earthquake and deforestation has occurred on a massive scale.
However, Robert Stepanyan, the Head of the Department of Information Analysis and Development at the Ministry of Education and Science, resigns himself to the fact that this kindergarten is representative of only 20 per cent of those operating in the republic. Even in the Soviet era, enrolment stood at just 45 per cent of eligible children with most parents viewing kindergartens as more of a repository than as somewhere necessary for child development.
“There are a number of other reasons for the current situation,” adds Stepanyan. “The main reason, of course, is that communities do not have the financial resources to maintain their local kindergartens. In addition, some parents cannot even afford the small monthly fee charged for their children to attend while others are unhappy with the level and quality of services offered.”
Yet, Stepanyan is confident that the situation will change. UNICEF and the World Bank are already establishing a working group to resolve the many problems facing kindergartens and pre-schools in Armenia. By introducing a revised curriculum and a new set of standards, Stepanyan also believes that kindergartens such as the one in Vanadzor will no longer be the exception rather than the rule – even if financial resources are lacking.
For more information:
Emil Sahakyan, Communication Officer, UNICEF Armenia
Tel: (+374 10) 580 174