What is a child friendly school?
First and foremost, it’s a school organized and run on 21st century modern management principles, and which puts children’s needs and interests first. Second, inclusive education is a vital component, and this means providing disabled children with access to mainstream education. Third, a child-centred curriculum and active-learning teaching methods are practiced. Finally, Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) are a crucial element to ensure compliance with child-friendly standards.
At the moment, CFS in Azerbaijan is limited to 50 pilot schools. But this is just the start of a steady roll-out plan which will make such standards the norm for the entire country: the impact will be far-reaching on children for future generations.
UNICEF’s goal with the Ministry of Education is that by 2015 half of the country’s schools will meet child friendly standards. Toward that goal, it is encouraging better and effective teaching, and has helped open training centres. Better school management is also fostered, and support is provided to state ministries and universities to train both government officials and teachers on implementing CFS criteria. Also, efforts are underway to introduce a new national curriculum to better prepare children for the 21st century.
Inclusive education (schooling for children with and without disabilities together) is making inroads into Azerbaijan, and several pilot projects are underway. Three major obstacles, however, must be overcome. Chief among these is the absence of a proper legal framework. Public opinion is also a problem since disability carries a stigma, and parents of fully-abled children often don’t want their children to mix with children with disabilities. Finally, the current curriculum is weak in this area, and it’s necessary to develop new standards.
PTAs are perhaps the most crucial CFS element, serving as a means of public oversight. PTAs are the strategic partner towards improving education. They count among the finest successes of UNICEF cooperation with the Ministry of Education, and are catching on and spreading across the country. Currently, about 900 schools, or 20% of the nation’s total, boast PTAs.
"Parent involvement is key for better education,’’ said Saida Ismailova, PTA director at the Kindergarten, Lycee, and School Complex in Baku. "The most important achievement is that children are now more closely involved with teachers, parents are more active, and education quality has improved.’’
"Our goal should be to prepare our children to become fully-formed citizens, and in order to achieve this we must prepare them from the earliest ages,’’ said Azer Gasonov, a father of three, and a retired police officer and proud PTA member. "We must raise them to love each other. Children must be educated to be tolerant and to accept children with disabilities as full members of society.’’
UNICEF is also a powerful source of new information and changing attitudes. Training professionals, working with the media and the educational system to try to eliminate stereotypes and prejudices is crucial.