Off to a good start: pre-school education in rural Georgia
KHASHURI, Georgia, May 2012 - The kindergarten in Tezeri village, in the central Khashuri district of Georgia, may seem much like any other kindergarten almost anywhere in the world. A dozen children, aged 3-5 – some boisterous and excited, others quiet and shy – are variously engaged in playing with Lego, doing puzzles or drawing pictures. Encouraged by their teacher, some proudly recite traditional nursery tales.
Yet this kind of pre-school institution is unprecedented, not only in Tezeri but in much of rural Georgia – and marks an almost radical departure with the past.
"There has never been a kindergarten in Tezeri before – in the past few people really understood the importance of pre-school education," says Nino Makhatadze, the pre-school educator. "That is changing now, and there has really been a growing demand by parents for this kind of facility – not simply as a childcare service, but as something important for their children's development," she says.
Pre-school enrolment in Georgia and in the broader South Caucasus region has traditionally always been lower than in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, and hit rock-bottom in the immediate post-Soviet period – from an already low figure of 45 per cent to 23 per cent for 3-5 year olds, and the number of kindergartens was halved. Although enrolment figures have started to rise over the past decade, they remain low – just 42 per cent, according to a 2011 Welfare Monitoring Survey. Low attendance has been ascribed partly to cost, and partly to the perception that young children are better cared for at home.
A comprehensive review of pre-school facilities in 2007 showed that more than 80 per cent of pre-schools needed major rehabilitation, with many lacking basics such as roofing, heating and educational materials. The pre-school teacher training system was under-developed, without modern pedagogical methodologies or a uniform set of standards.
UNICEF has been supporting the government of Georgia in its ongoing efforts to develop the pre-school education sector. Just one of its projects, financed by IKEA, is the provision of 40 pre-school centres for disadvantaged children in rural areas – some of them conflict-affected, some ethnic minority areas, and some with high poverty rates. Tezeri village is one of them – never having had a pre-school, and as elsewhere in Georgia, an area of endemic unemployment.
"Pre-school helps the children to acquire some basic knowledge and skills. Many can't even identify animals or colours; most have no books and very few toys at home," says Nino Makhatadze. "It also helps them to develop important social skills, and prepares them for primary school."
Mothers arriving to collect their children are equally enthusiastic. "Children learn much more here than they ever would at home. We're all too busy working at home or on the farm to be able to spend time teaching them," says one mother. "A good education is so important. There are no jobs here – many young people leave if they can – but at least if you're educated you have a better chance. And the sooner this starts, the better," says another.
Aleksander Kalandadze of the Georgian NGO Civitas, UNICEF's local partner, explains that through this project, existing municipal or school buildings are refurbished and equipped (in the case of Tezeri, a rented private house, since no public facility was available), and staff are recruited and trained. Local municipalities will take over the pre-school centres once the project is completed. The commitment and involvement of parents is also crucial.
"It is really important that parents are committed to make this project work, both in helping with necessary repairs and refurbishment, and in volunteering to assist the teacher. This will help to keep costs down, and ultimately help to ensure the project's sustainability," says Aleksander.
While 18 out of the 40 pre-school centres are already functioning – with the rest expected to be ready by September 2012 – some are still a work in progress. In Chumateleti village, for example, also in Khashuri district, a pre-school has been established in a small, dilapidated former primary school. The surrounding plot of land is however hazardous for young children, sloping steeply down to a stream with no fencing. One mother, Tea Gelashvili, says, "We've been organising ourselves as parents already for a long time already, asking the municipality to renovate an old building for a pre-school, but it never happened until this project started. But clearly more needs to be done to make this place fully functioning."
Similarly in Zemo Khvedureti, a pre-school has been established in a municipal building in the process of being renovated, also to house the office of the village governor and a medical service. While Civitas has provided the materials, it is now up to parents to plaster and paint the pre-school in order to bring it up to standard.
"For the most part, the parents are very enthusiastic and pro-active, and they understand that the old Soviet attitude that someone else will always provide what you need is no longer appropriate," he says. "But sometimes it can take a while," he adds with a smile. In Bijinisi, a picturesque yet poor village of some 80 families, the pre-school is a central feature. "All the families here with pre-school aged children are involved," says teacher Lia Gogaladze, whose three year old granddaughter is in the class. As she joins the children and several mothers in playing games outside, she adds, "This place is good for all of us, children and parents alike."