New approaches to early education help address low pre-school attendance in Armenia
© UNICEF Armenia/2007/Igor Dashevskiy
A girl at the kindergarten No. 6 in the town of Echmiadzin. About 80% of young children in Armenia do not attend any type of pre-school.
By Frale Oyen/UNICEF Armenia
In the struggle to pay the rent, put food on the table and clothe the family, enrolling a child in pre-school is a luxury that few low-income, Armenian families can afford. Which is why, more often than not, working parents opt to leave their young children in the care of close relatives.
So worrying is the trend that UNICEF, a proponent of pre-school education, has urged the Armenian government to increase investment in the education of young children and to prioritize the development and implementation of a comprehensive program for pre-school childcare, education and development.
Currently, nearly 80 per cent of the country’s pre-school-aged children do not attend pre-school either because their families cannot afford it or because no pre-school facilities exist in the area.
According to Alvard Poghosyan, UNICEF Education Officer, a number of pre-schools closed after the ownership of these state-owned institutions – day care for children aged two to three; kindergartens for children aged three to six – were transferred to the community in 1996. The problem? Local government had little or no money to spend on pre-school services. The result? Many schools closed and between 1991 and 2002, pre-school enrolment dropped significantly (69 per cent).
Ironic that, for a country which highly values education, the majority of the nation’s five to six year olds start school ill prepared for formal education.
"Although individual communities are responsible for pre-school education, the State needs to exercise responsibility also," Ms Poghosyan said. "Pre-school education is the foundation for future success and investment in pre-school is crucial in the life of a child and, in general, the future of the society."
Continued low national investment in early childhood and social services create significant risks for child development, particularly among the most vulnerable, she said, which is why UNICEF works with its partners to advocate for policies and to identify and engage new funding modalities to support early childhood development and education.
The graveness of the situation is not lost on the government of Armenia, which designed a pre-school education reform effort with support from UNICEF and the World Bank. The reform addresses pre-school access through low-cost models and quality through new curriculum and pre-school standards. It also addresses demand for pre-school and family support for learning through parent and community education projects.
UNICEF’s goal for 2008 is to increase pre-school enrolment - in particular, to get disadvantaged children living in vulnerable communities ready for school - and to implement a comprehensive development program for pre-school teachers. Its hope is that facilities like A Planet of Childhood No 9 in Yerevan’s Arabkir district become the norm.
The 150 children enrolled in the centre thrive from the attention received from teachers and parents. The facility, viewed as a model pre-school, fosters a positive, learning environment. The children’s works are proudly displayed. Classes are interactive and students, aged one and a half to six, are encouraged to express themselves.
Parental involvement also is actively solicited. Parents are asked to volunteer time in the classroom. They meet with their children’s instructors on a quarterly basis to discuss their children’s progress and they proudly watch as their children show off the skills learned.
"At the beginning of the year, we announced to the parents that we cannot operate this school without them," said Ms Suzanna Chibukhchyan, advisor to A Planet of Childhood. Her daughter, Anna Saloyan, is the director of the school.
However, it was not so long ago that the facility operated in the traditional style – top down management that was heavily focused on the instructor. In 1999, realising that they needed to move with the times, Ms Chibukhchyan and Ms Saloyan worked with Step by Step, UNICEF’s main partner in pre-school education, to turn the school around.
The transition was painful but, according to Ms Chibukhchyan, "we successfully moved from being a teacher-oriented facility to a child-centred facility."
"The traditional orientation was very rigid, very inflexible," she said. "The focus was on doing as you were told. Now, it’s very much on co-operation. Much has changed."
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other parts of the country – Tsakhahovit Village in Aragatsotn Marz, for example, where, as with many rural areas, no pre-school facilities exist.
Local educators, however, have received permission to convert one floor in an unused part of an existing school building into a pre-school. They turned to UNICEF for help.
Ms Poghosyan’s recommendation? That the community take small steps towards achieving its goal. Offer short – two-three hour – classes instead of adhering to the old Soviet standard of providing a variety of services on the premises – i.e. meals, playrooms, a room to nap.
"Lots of pre-school buildings stand empty because people think they need to renovate these huge buildings before they can provide pre-school services," Ms Poghosyan said. "Our belief is that you can start small. You can have a two-three hour curriculum to develop children’s communication, basic learning, behavioural and development skills so that kids are prepared to enter school."
For those who do not or cannot send their children to pre-school, UNICEF, in conjunction with Step by Step, established parent education programs to empower parents to work with their children at home to support their development and to prepare them for school.
The classes, which emphasize that pre-schools are educational institutions, not just holding pens for children, are held monthly in 16 communities throughout the country and are always well attended.
"Parents are eager to absorb the information provided," said Ms Chibukhchyan, who teaches a number of parenting classes. A Planet of Childhood, a resource for Step by Step Education Training, has instructed staff at 57 pre-schools.
During the sessions, parents discuss a variety of issues, from early childhood development to behavioural problems to disciplinary issues.
"They feel like students again," Ms Chibukhchyan said. "They come here to study, to learn. They make friends with others in the group."
"They exchange problems and receive feedback. Even outside of class, the group stays in touch, calling one another, sharing their problems, their achievements, their developments," she said. "We leave with a hope that they will implement the skills taught."